Index Unsolicited Comments 2000
- “Dream Play” and fin de siècle Angst
- Elections 2000: What’s at stake?
- Ethnic conundrum
- ¡Felicitaciones, primo Vicente!
- God-fearing atheism
- Pagan Pilgrimage: Berlin, Oktober 2000
- This season’s silliest movie: “Gladiator”
Yesterday we saw Robert Wilson’s production of August Strindberg’s 1901 “The Dream Play,” with Swedish cast, at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). Wonderful. An eerie dream of impossibility and solutions that are not, staged in tableaux that made me think of Magritte, in costumes of the era of the play. Got me thinking about fin de siècle (the 19th siècle, that is) anhedonia — Strindberg, Freud’s Viennese patients, Max Weber’s “nervous crisis.” How widespread was it, really? Nietzsche, too, went nuts. Too much to bear. What was too much to bear? Frustration, the sense that everything was becoming possible — because of amazing technical breakthroughs & new scientific knowledge even about social life (linguistics, etc.) — but that everything was still impossible because of unyielding social patterns. Patriarchy, which may at one time have been functional for the preservation and growth of the species, had become ritualistic and tyrannical, desperate, hysterical in its efforts to retain its grasp on families and youths who had no reason to perpetuate or reproduce the old order.
All this in Europe, documented in the famous cases I just mentioned from the major urban centers. In the countryside, the anger of the youths was probably directed less against their own fathers than against the urban forces that were compelling changes in their life styles, Jews especially — urban and exotic, un-Christian, which must have been the way many farmers saw all the cosmopolitan forces arrayed against them, that is, they thought of them all as “Jewish.” Or so I guess. Had to be different where Christians knew Jews as rural villagers.
To abandon that thread for a moment, the thread of anti-Semitism, I have two other questions. First, was such anhedonia really so widespread in urban Europe? Or is its importance magnified by the ample documentation left by Freud et al.? Another view is presented by John Berger in the novel G. Which maybe I should reread. As I recall, his view is that Europe was on the verge of blossoming into a much freer, more open society when the Great War shattered all such possibilities. Surely all these things were happening, forces pushing in contrary directions, combining momentarily with other forces to magnify their effects, then running into greater forces that deflected them. Mussolini’s socialism turned to fascism, for example. Michels’ “myth of the general strike,” a perversion of socialist optimism. Germany’s masses in the SPD with their May Day picnics with beer and sausages, celebrating a revolution to occur in the ever-receding future. By 1914, Europe was on the verge of something, and I think it was almost bound to be war, even if the shot (or was it a bomb? I’ve forgotten) at Sarajevo had failed. There’d been the Balkan wars, Russia’s war with Japan and brinksmanship with the Ottoman Empire and the Reich, German attempts at expansion in Africa, and so on.
The second question is whether anything like that was happening in the Americas. The Western Hemisphere seems to have been on a different clock. In Argentina, the bourgeoisie was buoyantly optimistic at that time, constructing its pseudo-French mansions in Buenos Aires with their beef and wheat profits. The immigrant working class, Italians and Spaniards mostly, were also optimistic, that they would be able to carry out a revolution. And in the US, despite the huge oscillations in the stock market and a couple of deep depressions, the general mood of the entrepreneurial classes was expectation of continued growth, and the mood of radicals in the IWW and the several other anarchist and socialist movements was of the inevitability of revolution, which was another kind of optimism.
And today? Socialism has failed yet again, less spectacularly but on a larger scale than its earlier failures in Paris in 1871 and again in Germany 1919 and Spain in 1939. It will rise again, of course, under that or some other name, and it will arouse great hopes and do great things — as it did in Cuba, where its failure is not yet certain. Capitalism is as rapacious as ever, its destructive potential more evident than ever, the disparities between rich and poor countries and between the rich and poor classes within them are as extreme as they every have been. And, as in 1901, when Strindberg wrote “The Dreamplay,” it seems as though There Is No Alternative (“TINA” – see Daniel Singer’s 1999 book on this tyrannical goddess). Of course, there is an alternative, there always is. Let us pray, to whatever gods we find within ourselves, that it is not the kind of alternative Europe created for itself in 1914. (Slightly revised and posted on Themestream, 12/04/00)
A political scientist friend said to me the other day that he couldn’t get interested in the ballot-counting in Florida because “There’s so little at stake.”
His specialty is the comparative study of democratic processes, and he is used to looking at countries where there is an awful lot at stake in elections. Here, it doesn’t seem as though the lives of most of us will be much different, whether Gore or Bush becomes the next president. Either way, we are going to be ruled by an executive committee of the ruling class. The question is, which sectors of the ruling class will have the most influence on the committee? And that is what is at stake.
With Bush, the committee will represent the moguls of the “Old Economy,” whose wealth is based on the older, established industries including oil and banking. With Gore, it will be the moguls of the “New Economy” – Silicon Valley and all the Silicon Alleys, and media (film, TV), and their ilk and allies. These sectors are not really enemies – and most wealthy people have investments in both – but they are rivals, with somewhat different capitalist cultures.
So what difference does it make to the rest of us? Well, for one thing, New Economy moguls are likely to take more seriously our looming environmental crisis, for two reasons: One, they don’t have the same stake in destroying the environment as do those whose wealth comes from extractive industries (mining, oil-drilling, logging, fishing). Two, they are the folks who are more likely to come up with technology to treat the problem. Whether the technology is effective or not may not concern them as much as having it appear to be effective, so that they can get the government – that is, us taxpayers – to pay them for it.
So we may be marginally better off with the group of New Economy moguls that is backing Gore. Not only will environmentalists have a bit more of an opening. Other social issues – women’s and minority rights among them – are also likely to get more of a hearing. This is because the New Economy moguls are more susceptible to mass pressure, partly because some of them share (or claim to share) the radically democratic, even anarchistic, culture of the Internet. More relevantly, their bottom line depends on an ever-expanding client base of communications-users.
Even if Bush is installed as our next president, the struggle will continue among the corporate leaders for control of the executive committee of the ruling class. And the New Economy people will demand some participation (and very likely will succeed in making their own candidate our next president, in 2004). So it’s up to us to use the channels of communication that have been developing so rapidly, to mobilize progressive forces. At least some of our rulers will have to listen, because their wealth depends on it.
Further reflections: 00/12/04:
An analysis of PAC contributions to the two candidates suggests that my analysis was too facile, though correct in broad terms. Bush received larger contributions in almost all categories, including “Communications and Electronics.” However, in his case, contributions in that category amounted to only 5% of his total reported PAC contributions (as of October) of $58,512,562. In Gore’s case, that category amounted to over 10% of the reported contributions of $22,491,713. For data, see WHO’S PAYING FOR THIS ELECTION?
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of German reunification (October 3) and the millennial Oktoberfest, my closest comrade and I toured Berlin, the former Deutsche Democratische Republik, and Prague. For her, an architect with a social conscience, the trip was a retracing of the humanitarian aspirations, Nazi degradation and post-war rebirth — with more modest aspirations — of the Bauhaus. For both of us it was also a pilgrimage, to sites of martyrdom and resistance in the country whose social struggles were so intense that they tore up all of Europe, and beyond. Here, we marveled as we passed it, is where the first Handwerkers Verein — prototype of a utopian labor union — was established in the mid-19th century; it’s now full of colorful yuppie galleries, but the name is preserved in stone on the façade. Here is the Reichstag balcony were Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the socialist republic in 1918, and here is the Landwehrkanal where thugs hired by the SPD threw Rosa Luxemburg’s corpse a few months later. Here were the SS headquarters, run by the spiritual descendants of those thugs; and then, outside of Berlin, near the little culture-soaked city of Weimar, here’s Buchenwald and its barracks and its “disinfection” stalls. And, back in Berlin, running right through the former SS headquarters, here stood the Wall.
“Es schwimmt eine Leiche im Landwehrkanal” — “A corpse swims in the Landwehr Canal” — went a music-hall song in the 1920s, referring not specifically to Rosa but to the post-World War I poor who committed suicide out of desperation. The canal, a water shortcut through Berlin for barges and now pleasure boats from the upper to the lower Spree, today is clean and — at least as far as we could see — corpse-free. Berlin, even its eastern sectors, seems prosperous.
The Ossis — Easterners — are, as reputed, generally sweet natured and polite, seemingly provincial compared to the more aggressive, hurried Wessis, their psyches sped up by der Kapitalismus. Here and there we saw ugly graffiti — “Raus Ausländer” sort of thing — and there seemed to be too many big, short-haired young men with too little to do, the kind we could imagine beating up or killing a dark-skinned foreigner just to relieve their boredom. But we also saw, in almost every town, at least a few darker people — Africans or South Asians, Turks — who mingled with the Oktoberfest crowds quite comfortably. And the anti-intolerance people are highly visible and organized, with posters, demonstrations and art events. And, near the palace that once housed the SED, the East German Communist Party, my dialectical materialist heartstrings vibrated to the drums and shouts of a huge student march against Faschismus, Rassismus, and cuts in the education budget.
My comrade and I also got to Prague, which I hadn’t seen since — well, 20 years ago, but that’s another story that some day I hope to tell. Some cuts remain too painful to expose. We arrived just in time for the raucous street dance celebration of the scruffy, boisterous anti-globalizers who had just trashed a McDonald’s and chased the IMF and World Bank functionaries out of town. That too is another story, one that is still being spun out and could go in several directions.
My personal tale is also still being spun out, though its direction is clear. Our pagan pilgrimage has made its outlines sharper, and reminded me how it fits into the far longer, greater, unending story of struggle for equality and human dignity. (Themestream, December 10, 2000)
Early in Graham Greene’s novel The Human Factor (1978), British intelligence officer Maurice Castle ducks into a London church.
The service was nearly at an end and the congregation of the well-dressed, the middle-aged and the old were standing at attention, as they sang with a kind of defiance as though they inwardly doubted the facts, “There is a green hill far away, without a city wall.” (p. 57)
I was brought up in a family that was vaguely Protestant; we had long since forgotten what we were protesting against. As a kid, I did some comparative sermon-listening at the Congregationalists, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians, and I too had the sensation, like Maurice Castle, that the people most vigorously proclaiming their faith have their inward doubts. A week ago, though, my usual accomplice and I drove along I-95 from New York to Florida, passing through Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, and I began to suspect that there are still today many American Christians who have no inward doubts.
Of course, I don’t really know what is going on inside their heads, but I saw the fervor of the young people handing out bible exhortations and the abundance of bumper stickers, local news items and other evidences of faith. There are, it seems, people even in this country, even in this century, who honestly, unironically believe that there is an intelligent, self-conscious force above and beyond humanity and that this force — generally thought of as male, and generally called God — has a will that it exercises over us and everything in the universe. That is a scary idea, and whether true or not it is a powerful idea. I’ve seen it work to give courage to people taking great risks — for example, the nuns who risked their lives to save others in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 coup in Chile. But the idea can also justify any sort of extreme action by those who think they’ve got the correct interpretation of that divine will, whether in North Carolina or in Kabul. That’s why I am a God-fearing atheist. 00.09.01
When I applied recently for a job in the CUNY (City University of New York) system, I was asked to fill out a survey and check my “Ethnic Origin.” My choices were Asian/Pacific Islander; Black (not of Hispanic Origin); Caucasian; Puerto Rican; Hispanic; Italian American; Native American (Indian, Alaskan); Other.
This was a puzzle. Does “ethnic” refer to biology or culture? “Asian/Pacific Islander” includes so many of both that it’s hardly a category at all. “Asia” extends to the Urals and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. What do Tongans and Israelis have in common? “Black (not of Hispanic Origin)” is a racial category modified by a cultural one. But if “Puerto Rican” is not “Hispanic,” they’re ignoring both biology and culture. If what they mean is culture, then did I become Hispanic by learning Spanish? Do Mexican Americans et al. cease being Hispanic if they forget Spanish?
Whichever they mean, they’re undoubtedly right to distinguish “Italian American” from “Caucasian,” those dark, dense-haired, usually short people from Georgia, Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus (like Joseph Stalin). But what about the rest of us with European ancestors? Mine — the ones I know about — all come from northwestern Europe (France, Germany, Holland, the British Isles, Norway), not a Caucasian, or anybody from even close to the Caucasus, in the bunch. So in the end, the only one I could check off with confidence was “Native American.” After all, I was born in Chicago.I hope that doesn’t mess up their survey.
Vicente Fox Quesada may not be a close relative– his Foxes came from Ireland, mine from Germany (where their name was Fuchs) — but I am pleased to share the surname. What he offers is not so much a solution to Mexico’s terrible problems of paralysis through bureaucracy and corruption, but the possibility of solutions, now that the PRI’s grip is broken. He is inexperienced and tempestuous, and we know he will be sabotaged, but — ¡Muy buena suerte, hombre! And now, can the PRI remake itself into a Revolutionary, non-Institutional Party?
(Note: A correspondent advises me that this is not truly the “silliest” current movie — that “The Patriot” is even sillier. However, I have avoided seeing that, so as to spare Mel Gibson any further embarrassment. This, then, is my report on the silliest movie I’ve seen so far this season. By reading this note, you will know all you need to make appropriately ironic comments and can save your $8.50.)
I found it hard to believe that such a goofy film as “Gladiator” could be nominated for so many Academy Awards. Or that anybody thought that what Russell Crowe was doing in the film was “acting.” But the movie did have one great virtue for me: it made me look up the real history of Emperor Commodus, Lucilla and the gladiators. But first, a quick look at the movie.
This is the first Hollywood epic to successfully combine the genres of “Saving Private Ryan” with that Irving Berlin classic, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Or maybe it’s a remake of a famous never-released comedy, “Abbot and Costello Play the Roman Circus.”
It opens just like “Private Ryan, ” with a great, bloody battle rendered in loving detail. Maximus, the general in command of Rome’s Army of the North some time in the 2d century AD, is an amiable guy with a self-deprecating smile and a shuffling gait, more like Tom Hanks than like most Roman top brass. Thanks to overwhelming firepower (fire-ball hurling catapults and powerful crossbows) he and his men slaughter the hairy barbarians of Germania. Impressed, the old emperor Marcus Aurelius tells him he wants to make him, instead of his young son Commodus, his heir. When Commodus – a sniveling, self-pitying, ambitious brat — hears this, he strangles dear old dad and declares himself the next Caesar, and when Maximus says no, orders the general hauled out and murdered.
Maximus, through some sleight-of-sword that I couldn’t follow, escapes his assassins and gallops many leagues to his farm somewhere in Spain — this takes a lot of film time, but would have taken even longer if the producers had respected real geography. What about those Pyrenees? Anyway, there he finds his servants murdered and his wife and child crucified (we’re told later – all we see are their hanging feet) by Praetorian Guards (nasty SS in black armor). This makes him so unhappy that — well, he daydreams about Elysium, which is where pre-Christian Romans go when they die. He’s captured by the impresario of a traveling gladiators’ circus in the ‘burbs, and here starts his career in show business. Max turns out to have star quality. The impresario, an old ex-gladiator himself, puts him at the top of the bill when he gets a chance to take his show to the Mala Maxima (Roman for “Big Apple “).
Maximus and his new gladiator buddies Minimus (a black African) and Hypermaximus (a hulking Bohemian on steroids) take all comers in the Coliseum, even when the fight is rigged against them. Exempli gratia, as they say in Rome, the trio manages to demolish a whole fleet of armored chariots manned (woman’ed?) by fetching Amazon archers in double-breasted breastplates. This is mostly because the former general gets them to work as a team, something not commonly seen in gladiatorial circles (remember Tony Curtis as Demetrius?). Commodus, dismayed that his old enemy has become vastly more popular with the “mob ” than he is, and unable to get him killed no matter how the arena is rigged, finally decides to put on a show where he, the Caesar, fights Maximus the gladiator — after first stabbing the chained gladiator so that he’ll be weakened. Mad Max, though bleeding his life away, wins anyway, in a spectacular performance, and kills Commodus before expiring himself. His last words are, “Free those other guys! ” which some military-looking official, whose presence has not previously been explained, does. Oh, and I forgot the incestuous subplot. Commodus has the hots for his sister Lucilla, who has the hots for her old lover Maximus and tries to get him freed. Her brother discovers the plot and tells her that if she doesn’t do it with him, he’ll kill her little son (don’t ask). This coitus is interruptus, however, by the big final match in the arena that costs Commodus his life.
The producers used up so much money on special effects (flaming catapults, chariots, hundreds of suits of armor) that they could hire only one elephant (seen in a couple of walk-ons through the Roman streets) and one actor, Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Commodus – deliciously evil! Besides the fact that there was only one elephant, another odd feature of Second Century Rome is that it was inhabited entirely by males. The only women anywhere in the movie (unless you can spot one in the crowd scenes -— I didn’t) are Lucilla, who has a few lines, and Maximus’ dead wife, who doesn’t.
Moral of the story I ( “Saving Private Ryan ” thread): ‘Tis noble to die for honor, but only when there’s a big crowd cheering.
Moral II (Irving Berlin thread): The show must go on (even when the star is bleeding to death).
Why did they come up with such an absurd plot? Probably because if they’d told the real history, nobody would believe them! The real Commodus, who became emperor in 180 AD when he was 18, did in fact sponsor gladiatorial spectacles, foil plots by his sister Lucilla, and kill many senators and other distinguished Romans on a whim. But when he was murdered at age 30, it was not a gladiator but a professional wrestler named— get this — Narcissus who strangled him. I’m not making this up! And who hired the big guy? Why, the commander of those nasty Praetorian Guards, in cahoots with Commodus’ mistress Marcia. But showing that story would have meant casting another woman.
(First posted 00.06.29, revised and posted on “Themestream” under title Goofy “Gladiator” vs. the Real Story, March 24, 2001)