“Use every man after his desert and who shall ‘scape whipping?”
There’s a narrative that comes up whenever addiction is discussed publicly nowadays: the narrative in which the disease of addiction essentially replaces a person’s free will.
The barroom-wisdom version of it is the old line, “First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.” A fairly heartbreaking version of it comes in this interview with author (and father of an addict) David Sheff: “Once I started realizing that my son was not making choices, I went from being angry and judgmental to being able to look at him with compassion: He’s sick; he needs help. It also allowed me to figure out what I needed to do: He’s sick; he needs to be treated.”
This narrative is, to put it mildly, not uncontested. Lots of addicts don’t agree with this description of our problem. Lots of non-addicts also disagree, typically more virulently (but I guess I’m biased), and insist that addicts are doing it on purpose: That’s a narrative I seem to see more on the right than on the left, though these are personal enough matters that ideological categories get blurry. The whole debate over how fully you want to reify the disease metaphor (which is what it is—that’s not bad, metaphors are a normal and poetic part of human understanding) gets tangled up in related debates about Alcoholics Anonymous, metaphors of surrender, treatment and/as/vs. punishment, and the promotion of personal responsibility.
There are five things wrong with an overemphasis on disease at the expense of free will—but the reaction against the disease metaphor often merely serves to strengthen it. First, the five things:
If you couldn’t understand what your family was saying, would you understand them better or worse?
Nina Raines’s ”Tribes” opens with four Britons hurling abuse at each other around the kitchen table. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it’s mostly just crass and painful: Mom, Dad, brother and sister describing one another’s passions, hopes, beliefs, and sex lives in the most contemptuous terms possible. The fifth member of the family is deaf and yeah, you do feel that perhaps he’s the lucky one.
As the play moves forward, the younger characters get shades and nuance. (The parents, and especially the cartoonishly self-centered father, remain pretty much the same.) Daniel (Richard Gallagher), the hearing son, shows flashes of haunted vulnerability which reveal a gulf of misery under cover of vituperation. The entire family has raised Billy (James Caverly, who starts off with a beatific smile which is clearly at least partly a mask or role) to read lips rather than to sign. They’ve developed an ideological resistance to anything which smacks of Deaf culture.
They genuinely believe they’re protecting Billy, but they’re also terrified of losing their beloved son and brother to a culture which can promise him a kind of belonging they can’t offer. When that masky smile finally slips and Billy says that they view him as the family mascot, the audience can tell that it’s not true: If anything, he’s the family conscience, the only one they allow to be good, the only one they’ll openly love. Of course, he’s also the only one they never need to listen to.
When the play begins, the family is all trapped together. The hearing children, Daniel and Ruth, have retreated to the family home after a series of romantic and professional defeats in the outside world. (“I feel like a bonsai tree!” Ruth yells, in a line which got big, empathetic laughs.) Billy never left, has never had a job or a girlfriend. One of the major themes of the play is the fact that belonging is rarely chosen; you don’t get to pick the elements which make up your identity, the ties which bind. You can try to leave—and seriously, Daniel at least should do everything in his power to get out of his parents’ house, because they’re actively damaging his psyche; this isn’t a play about the comforts of home—but you will eventually have to return, if only to give an account of yourself.
There are some terrific little moments (the play’s humor eventually does become actually funny), often involving how much impromptu “sign” this resolutely anti-sign-language family uses. There are tough, basically unanswerable questions about how language shapes us and separates us from others: As Billy’s new girlfriend goes deaf, she wonders if she’s losing the ability to understand nuances and ambiguities which can’t be expressed in sign. Read More…
I saved The Friends of Meager Fortune, the second novel I’ve read by Canadian Catholic author David Adams Richards, for the polar vortex. If anything can make Boston in January seem warm, it’s this relentlessly grim tale of the last days of man-and-horse lumbering, with horses crashing through the ice and bloodied hands freezing on the reins.
I’m conflicted about recommending the book. What is good in it is immensely powerful. The story of the doomed love of local failure/hero/failure again Owen Johnson and charity case/outcast Camellia Dupuis is suspenseful and deeply moving. Camellia is a luminous innocent who never becomes cloying. She’s gentle, in a profoundly ungentle world.
Even more moving, though, is the portrayal of the grim, death-shadowed men who work for Owen up on Good Friday Mountain, cutting down logs under shockingly dangerous and miserable conditions. The book would be worth reading just for the depictions of the horses, their pride and suffering, as they work themselves to death under the care of proud and suffering men. The economic suspense (will Johnson’s timber haul fail?) and the suspense of the work itself (who will survive the grim conditions on Good Friday?) are as tense as the romance, and the plot twists in these areas made me gasp several times.
And Richards acidly depicts the gossip and judgment of a small town, the way the gazes of our neighbors can destroy us. Read More…
Rene Magritte made so ridiculously many paintings that creating a manageable exhibit on his work requires some kind of exclusionary mechanism. The Museum of Modern Art has chosen to carve him up chronologically, giving a time-slice of his work from 1926 to 1938. This period includes Magritte’s most evocative and haunting works–but also a raft of punny schlock.
Of course, the popular Magritte is often the punny Magritte (yes, you can see the famous not-a-pipe at the MOMA show); and the horror-laced, otherworldly Magritte was often the result of finding just the right, resonant punchline for an existential joke.
Magritte is a horror artist in part because he has such an up-front sense of humor: Both the horror and the humor are about incongruities and displacement. The one with the giant egg in a cage is almost the same joke as the one with the tattered boots turning into feet, and it may be only a matter of personal taste that I find the cage-egg shticky and formulaic whereas the grimy, fleshy boot-feet are troubling and sad. The opening wall caption notes his self-proclaimed ambition to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” which reminds me of the Jack Handey line about the screaming trees. Lots of Magritte’s work has this funny-creepy edge: the eye in the pancake; the cute doughy-faced moppet in lace collar and cuffs, eating a bird.
Some of my own favorites are in this show. 1927′s “The secret double,” a woman with a strip ripped or broken off of her face, revealing mysterious gray sleigh bells on ropy stalks, is an extraordinary image of the unknowable consciousness hidden behind an ordinary face. Magritte at his best often creates a hushed atmosphere, like a velvet curtain coming down over the mind–curtains appear at the edges of many of his dreamscape works. “Entr’acte,” with its bizarrely connected limbs stretching and holding one another, and “The muscles of the sky,” in which sharply defined blue-gray coils of sky spill out onto a wooden platform, never become less striking for me. Looking at them, and at “The Finery of the Storm” with its person-sized snowflakey paper cutouts ranged in front of a turbulent sea, I feel like I’m standing at the edge of an abyss: quiet, held in suspense, full of surprises.
Magritte has a lot of recurring tricks, and I love most of them: all that sky-blue, and the occasional judicious use of creepy salmon pink; the touchable textures, furry or grainy or polished; the vaguely human “bilboquets” and Martian-ship sleigh bells. He can evoke fairy tales, as in “The Healer,” and his illustrations of the fraught interactions of men and women are phenomenal: “The titanic days” and “The rape” for violence against women, but also “The lovers” for a mysterious, teasing sexiness. (The sheets covering their heads don’t only hide them from one another, but also suggest smooth, sensual textures and, of course, bed.)
His word trick I don’t love. This is the thing where he paints some melty, curvy object, and then sticks an unrelated word into it; or he paints e.g. a fire and labels it “l’oiseau.” One of these is interesting. Two or three: Okay, he needs to get something out of his system. Ten? Ten is too many. Some of them have enough sensuality in the shapes and textures to get me past the one-trick pony of it all, but most of them seem like paintings you “get” rather than paintings you’re absorbed by. And the MOMA show includes a lot of them.
In all other respects the show is thoughtful. Not too many captions (some of which have a dry humor: “Le Chant de l’orage is the second of three paintings Magritte produced in response to what he saw as the problem of rain”), a nice winding path in which every work gets enough space to capture the viewer, and some fun photographs of Magritte and his paintings, including one where he mimics the crime-fiction villain Fantomas. The show runs through January 12, 2014.
In decadent Rome, an aging art critic rides the success of his one, long-ago novel, and wonders if there’s more to life than having the best conga line in the Eternal City. He watches young nuns playing in a hedge maze, drifts into and through relationships with damaged women, and does a lot of eloquent smoking.
The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino’s update of/homage to La Dolce Vita, offers a lot of expected pleasures. Our antihero, Jep Gambarella (Toni Servillo), sometimes seems to be genuinely having fun, and at those points I tended to have fun right along with him. The camera swoons and swoops. The art and landscape of Rome look glorious–the many different, clashing landscapes, nuns scuttling past a satyr, neon lights and ancient stones. The satire of terrible performance art probably goes on too long (I would’ve cut the on-the-nose sequence with the man whose father photographed him every day of his life, and the knife thrower) but it ranges from acidic to surprisingly thought-provoking, disturbing, and nuanced.
Jep is a critic in the worst way: somebody who makes his living off of art. It’s a job which breeds cynicism. And Rome is famously a city of cynics.
But somewhere around the three-quarters point of the movie, something unexpected occurs. “The Saint” comes to Rome from Africa. This tiny old lady is a Mother Teresa caricature, surrounded by sycophants and bandwagoners, sitting propped up at the dinner table practically drooling, looking like humid death.
I picked up Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl at the Neue Galerie in New York, basically on a whim. It promised to be a dizzying tour of Weimar Berlin, last call before Hell and all that, from the perspective of a young, single woman whom the introduction compares to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Certainly our heroine, Doris, is materialistic in a certain sense. She pays her bills by dating men. Her closest relationship is with her stolen fur coat. (The letter she writes to the coat’s rightful owner is a terrific, tilt-a-whirl study in ambivalent amends.) But she isn’t hard-headed; her desires are a collage of sentiment and hunger. She maintains her girlish figure easily, since throughout most of the novel she can’t actually afford food. She writes her hopes and dreams in the notebook she’s covered with little paper doves:
I’m going to be a star, and then everything I do will be right–I’ll never have to be careful about what I do or say. I don’t have to calculate my words or my actions–I can just be drunk–nothing can happen to me anymore, no loss, no disdain, because I’m a star.
Kathie von Ankum’s translation is full of sharp, funny cockeyed lines, usually describing men—”his usual politics is blonde,” for example. But Doris goes through some truly rough times, and the most memorable sections of the book are its most poignant. This book made me choke up over a dead goldfish: “Put him back in the water!”, this universal human desire to reverse the irreversible. There are parts of this book which sound like Walker Percy:
So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.
I don’t really like him all that much, but I’m with him, because every human being is like a stove for my heart that is homesick but not always longing for my parents’ house, but for a real home–those are the thoughts I’m turning over in my mind. What am I doing wrong?
Perhaps I don’t deserve better.
The future does hang over this book, and thin acrid drifts of it waft through the novel here and there: Doris ruminates on being asked whether she’s a Jew; she gets caught up in the ecstasy of a political rally. Berlin is filled with the desperately poor, especially veterans. It’s a city of people who have slipped down many rungs of life’s ladder, and Doris begins to feel herself slipping too.
I ended this book loving poor Doris, and Keun seems to love her too. She strains to come up with some kind of demi-happy ending for her heroine, Doris who believes that “it is particularly those things you have stolen with your own hands that you love the most”; but she can’t quite reach happiness, and settles for chastening.
Now that the shutdown is over, I can tell you about a small but punchy photography exhibit at the Sackler.
“Sense of Place,” which runs through November 11, disrupts many of the cliches of East vs. West. In these tired oppositions, Europe is a clash of swords and horses; China, Japan, or any other part of the undifferentiated East is a lone monk crossing a quiet pond. The West is the land of change and history, the East is the land where life is as fleeting and yet eternal as the seasons.
Well, there is a lone man crossing a quiet pond in “Sense of Place.” Hai Bo’s image is gentle, sad and misty, as a bridge arches in graceful curves over the placid water. But this is only the first in a series of three images. The bridge is destroyed. The man is left wandering in a foggy forest, and then abandoned among concrete structures under a blank white sky. In just three photographs we’ve entered the modern world: a world of industrialization and rapid change. Despite the exhibit’s title, time rather than place is the major theme of the small show—it takes up only two rooms—and the emphasis is on the aftermath of distinctly twentieth-century destruction in China, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam.
The engine which runs “After the Revolution,” a play by Amy Herzog that will show at Theater J (the theater of Washington’s Jewish Community Center) through October 6, is a generations-old betrayal: A fledgling leftist activist from a family of Communist Jews learns that her much-honored grandfather spied for the Soviet Union during World War II and then perjured himself in front of HUAC denying it.
The revelation shatters Emma Joseph’s trust in her family and in her own righteousness, and, because she’s the founder of a legal defense fund for Mumia Abu-Jamal which she named after her grandfather, it threatens her career. As her family struggles to deal with her intense reaction to this news from the Venona decryptions and their own conflicted, complicit responses to it, further family secrets and resentments get unearthed.
Emma and her family never quite arrive at a full reckoning, but there is enough meat here to make the play well worth seeing if you have any interest in its subject matter. Be sure to have somewhere you can go afterward for drinks and arguments. (I am only half a Jew, but I had at least three opinions about this play all by myself!)
Because most of the traditional pathways to adulthood—marriage, economic independence, stable job—seem out of reach or prove to be reversible, working-class young adults have developed a new definition of maturity. This new pathway relies heavily on therapeutic culture: You become an adult by overcoming the trauma of your past, whether that involved abusive parents, drug addiction, mental illness, or less flamboyant hardships. Young adults who take on this new definition focus on protecting the fragile self, and they reject solidarity and close, committed relationships in favor of individualistic, judgmental competition.
This is the basic thesis of Jennifer M. Silva’s insightful, frustrating new book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. “At its core,” Silva writes, “this emerging working-class adult self is characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment, widespread distrust of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health.”
Silva interviewed 100 white and black working-class adults, defining “working-class” as native-born Americans, with native-born parents who didn’t have college degrees—Silva herself fits this definition. A lot of what she found rang very true to me from my own conversations with young adults in low-wage jobs, although I suspect her findings don’t generalize quite as much as she thinks: The worldview she describes has definitely influenced some of the women I counsel at the pregnancy center, for example, but they’re also shaped by communal ties, religious history and their own religious fervor, and a culture of childbearing.
Silva finds relatively little of the “redemption through procreation” language which men expressed in the recent Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, and none of the catastrophic romanticism which drove premarital relationships for the “red-state” young adults in 2011′s Premarital Sex in America. So she’s only capturing part of the picture of working-class or poor young adulthood.
And there were many times when I felt the heavy hand of the medium upon the planchette, as Silva seemed to overinterpret her interviewees’ words to drag them closer to her preexisting theories. She often quotes an interview and then summarizes it in terms which don’t really capture what I would mean if I said what her interviewee said, or what people I’ve heard say those things meant when they said them. She talks a lot about “social institutions” and how there should be more of them or how they’ve failed, but the only ones she actually names in a positive context are unions, and she relies almost exclusively on government intervention for signs of hope.
Like I said, it’s a frustrating book. But its primary insights are important and true. There is a working-class therapeutic culture, that culture did arise in large part because of the disruption of older institutions which provided stability and a source of identity, and that culture is intensely prone to self-blame and judgmental “crabs in a barrel” sniping at other working-class people who aren’t sufficiently self-helping.
Somebody–I hope a commenter will remind me who it was–has suggested that the Left typically thinks in terms of an opposition between oppression and liberation, whereas the right typically thinks in terms of an opposition between civilization and barbarism. I would reframe the latter opposition as order vs. chaos; if we do that, it’s obvious that both oppositions are unrelentingly relevant, yet few thinkers or artists are able to hold both conflicts before our eyes at once.
I just finished Charles Johnson’s 1986 short-story collection The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations, a bag of broken glass which is equal parts liberationist and reactionary, yearning for freedom and knuckling under to fatalism. Centering on black American lives, mostly set within black communities, his stories shouldn’t be missed—he’s an intensely intellectual visionary, a reader of Plato who remembers that the heart of Plato is in the Symposium, a black Buddhist for whom education is not so much self-improvement as self-abnegation.