Friday, November 27, 2020

Metropolitan Museum Evokes "1984," "The Sympathizer"

The latest development at New York's Metropolitan Museum brings to mind books like George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984" and the equally grim tale "The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen. In both stories, the chief protagonist runs afoul of an authoritarian regime and as part of his punishment, must make confessions.

On Nov. 26, 2020, the New York Times ran an article in its art section that the Met had appointed its first Chief Diversity Officer, Lavita McMath Turner, a Black woman with experience in such matters, most recently at the City University of New York.  That's not a big surprise.  Many major U.S. cultural institutions have recently taken a similar step.  Moreover, as the NYT article pointed out, the NY city government informed its cultural institutions that if they didn't take steps to diversify their staffs, they might lose some of their public funding. 

What most interested me was an element of confession associated with the Met's announcement.  It came at least in part as a result of a staff letter five months ago, the NYT said, that urged the museum's leaders to acknowledge "a deeply rooted logic of white supremacy and culture of systemic racism at our institution."

The notions of white supremacy and systemic racism are key phrases and concepts in the current movement that sometimes goes as far as attempting to "cancel culture" in bringing about change, much of which is arguably overdue. If one doesn't decry "white supremacy" and "systemic racism" in those terms, however, one is insufficiently "woke" and, well, might suffer the fate of Orwell's Winston Smith or Nguyen's anonymous narrator -- periods of punishment and correction.

While those advocating such a reconsideration of the very basis of U.S. society tend to paint it in terms of a moral awakening and reckoning, is also purely and simply a power struggle.

The Met's President and CEO Daniel H. Weiss and Direct Max Hollein stopped short of repeating the key phrases -- "white supremacy" and "systemic racism" -- in the institution's July 6, 2020 mea culpa. But the document made it clear that a confession along such lines is in the offing.

"Our government, policies, systems, and institutions have all contributed to perpetuating racism and injustice, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art must reflect on its past and aspire to be an agent of change," the July 6 statement said.

Along with promised reforms and new initiatives on various fronts -- hiring, staffing, collecting, exhibitions, etc. -- substantive change "will also require that we understand our past and that we accept the importance of truth-seeking as a necessary part of the process of learning and reconciliation."  

In other words, forward-looking reforms are not enough. 

"A set of commitments to anti-racism cannot begin without an honest assessment of an institution’s own history and present practices. This process will require that we investigate our own history and that we accept the importance of truth-seeking as an essential element of healing and reconciliation. We will begin this work in the coming year through an institution-wide initiative and produce a public report."

That was number one on the list of steps the Museum said it planned to take.

In writing this, I don't mean to beat up on the Met per se.  It's just that these developments are an excellent example of the nature of the culture war in which the U.S. is currently engulfed, and particularly in the arena of high-culture arts and that of academia. 

But at the same time, they give rise to an interesting question: if the Met's forthcoming self-examination concludes that the institution and thus its leadership have been complicit in preserving white supremacy and that the Met is part of systemic racism, can Weiss survive as president and CEO? It's hard to have it both ways.


 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

New Yorker Fiction and "What is This Story About?"

 It's not unusual to read a work of fiction and find oneself thinking: "I wonder what this story is about?"

This is perhaps especially true with respect to the New Yorker's Nov. 23, 2020 short story entitled "The Winged Thing," by Patricia Lockwood.  Part of the problem is that it isn't actually a short story. It's an excerpt from Lockwood's forthcoming novel "No One Is Talking About This" and in effect, is an ad for that book for which Lookwood didn't have to pay, but instead presumably got paid. Wouldn't most writers love to find themselves in that position!

Basically, if you read the excerpt and you like Lockwood's style of writing, you might buy her novel and perhaps find out by reading the whole thing what she's really trying to say. Is that what this this "text" is about.

In the usual author's interview, Lockwood is first asked about her approach to the narrative -- "a protagonist who is immersed in the language of the Internet" -- and indeed there is a bit of that although in some respects, more abstract in nature than one might expect on the basis of that description. It's all about escaping suffering, we are told.

Finally, there is what happens in this excerpt.  The apparently younger sister of the unnamed chief character, a woman who may be a lesbian ("Back in Ohio and heterosexual again," she says at one point), is about to have a baby that appears to be developing in the womb in an abnormal fashion bringing up, among other things, the possibility of an abortion.

There, Lockwood spins out a convincing and thought-provoking narrative of all that might go on in such a situation and as a result, one could easily conclude it's what the story is about. Except for two things. First, this is just a small segment of a novel and second, in her interview, Lockwood says that the significance of the episode is that it plucks the main character out of her online life and puts her "back into the body that suffers." And that then leads Lockwood into a rather puzzling explanation of the nature of language.

What is this story about?

Monday, November 23, 2020

Interpreting William Faulkner's Story "Dry September"

 

On its face, William Faulkner’s short story Dry September (1931) is an account of a Black man precipitously lynched by a hastily assembled group of white men because he allegedly had a transgressive interaction with a local white woman. As such, it was surely reflective of many real-life lynchings in the wake of Reconstruction and it foreshadowed the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy accused of flirting with, and possibly touching, a 21-year-old married storekeeper named Carolyn Bryant while visiting relatives in Mississippi.

Largely because Till’s mother insisted upon having his mutilated body displayed in an open casket in his home-town of Chicago, attracting a host of viewers and great publicity, that event became an important impetus to the phase of the civil rights movement that resulted in significant gains for Blacks in the mid-1960s.

Although Faulkner’s story can certainly be read as a story about a lynching, it is maddeningly short of details. Nothing is known of the transgressive incident in question; little other than a name (Will Mayes) and his place of work is known of the alleged Black perpetrator; there are no details of his killing (although by implication he was shot); readers don’t know why one key figure, a town barber, insists that Mayes couldn’t have done it, and it isn’t clear why Mayes’ apparent killer, a former Army officer named John McLendon, was so anxious to go after him. But more on McLendon later.

The only character Faulkner spends any time developing in Dry September is Miss Minnie Cooper and readers learn quite a bit about her to the point where she, rather than the lynching, appears to be the main subject of the story. From a “comfortable” but not prominent family, Minnie was slim and vivacious as a young girl, but too childish to be sufficiently class conscious. When she overhears her more sophisticated contemporaries dissing her, she ceases to accept social invitations and retreats to life as a young spinster with her invalid mother and a “thin, sallow” aunt. She’s 38 or 39 at the time of the story.

But she’s no recluse. “Still on the slender side of ordinary,” she regularly goes into town, wearing one of three or four new voile dresses she buys every summer. Voile is a lightweight, semi-sheer material that while appropriate for very hot weather, is also arguably noticeably expressive of femininity. Faukner makes so much of Minnie’s choice of such dresses that readers are surely meant to think they say something significant about her.

One of the town barbers, a man named (Henry?) Hawkshaw, trying to defuse the rumor-driven situation, suggests Minnie is so unattractive no one would want to have sex with her. “I leave it to you fellas if them ladies that get old without getting married don’t have notions that a man can’t,” he says, depicting her as “a woman that never …”  but who is susceptible to fantasies.

However, based on what the unidentified narrator of the story subsequently tells us about Minnie, Hawkshaw’s characterization doesn’t appear to be entirely accurate, even though he claims to know her.  It appears he is most likely depicting her as less attractive than she is to protect Mayes, who he also says he knows, but readers aren’t told in what context or why he so insistently proclaims the Black man’s innocence.

Mayes works as a night watchman at an ice plant some distance out of town and as a Negro in the South in 1930 or so, clearly doesn’t get his hair cut by a white barber. Readers aren’t told where he lives or what he does when not working.

In contrast to Hawkshaw’s assessment of Minnie, Faulkner’s narrator first tells us that as she watched her schoolmates pair off, get married and have children, “no man called on her steadily until she was known as ‘aunty’ and mothers told their children how popular she had been as a girl.” But then, in her late 20s, she attracted the attention of a widowed bank clerk of about 40, smelling faintly of the barbershop, “or of whiskey,” and was seen riding around with him in his car – the first in town – in a motoring bonnet and veil. The town, evidently aware the relationship was unlikely to be promising, started referring to her as “poor Minnie,” but also saying “she’s old enough to take care of herself.”

The relationship, or the affair, or whatever it was, lasted four years, and as a result (it is now eight years later), Minnie had been “relegated into adultery in public option,” the narrator tells us. That’s considerably different from what the barber, Hawkshaw, would have us believe. But his focus is Mayes, not Minnie.

The key to the story, from the perspective I am advancing, is that after four years, the bank clerk left Minnie and moved to Memphis, returning once a year, at Christmas, but never seeing her. Rather, friends told her about his episodic reappearances.

Minnie is thus an abandoned woman, in the tradition of Medea, Dido and a host of others – a trope, if you will, most recently mined by Elena Ferrante, author of The Days of Abandonment and four novels known as The Neopolitan Quartet in which themes related to abandonment are developed. This is a major subject for her, Ferrante makes clear in series of interviews.

So what did Minnie do? At first, readers are told, she began drinking whiskey supplied by a clerk at a soda fountain, and continued to go out into town in her new voile dresses, insisting that the children of her friends call her “cousin” rather than ”aunty” to reinforce the notion she was still young and potentially desirable.  But it was no use. “Lounging men did not even follow her with their eyes anymore,” the narrator says, an assessment that does square at least in part with the Hawkshaw’s characterization of her then-prevailing state.

Based on what Ferrante, if no one else, tells us about abandoned women, Minnie’s resentments were continuing to build along with, one can fairly assume, her sexual frustrations. Surely her four-year relationship with the bank clerk, given his background, age and likely desires, was not devoid of intimacy.

So, on the single afternoon and evening during which the story takes place, readers, though the narrator’s eyes, are allowed to see Minnie late in the day, feverish (presumably as a result of the rumored incident) and having trouble dressing while three seemingly sympathetic, but also salaciously curious, female friends await her story.

“While she was still dressing her friends called for her and sat while she donned her sheerest underthings and stockings and new voile dress.” Her friends told her (the narrator relates) that when she got over the shock, she was to tell them everything – “what he said and did.” Who was “he?”

In the eyes of a John McLendon, a WWI veteran who commanded troops and was cited for valor, any Black male would do. “What the hell difference does it make?” he asks when Hawkshaw suggests the sheriff investigate the rumored incident to discover who, if anyone, is to blame. “Are you going to let the black sons get away with it until one really does it?” (my emphasis), McLendon says.

But again back to Minnie: eventually she sallies forth, escorted through the town to a film by her friends, “fragile in her fresh dress” – pink in color readers eventually learn thanks to one observer.

And rather than the apparent lynching, about which readers are told nothing, what happened to Minnie is described in some detail. She wanted to break out laughing and hoped the film would help the laughter under control “so it would not waste away so fast and so soon.” She clearly wants to enjoy something she has apparently pulled off, but to no avail. Her friends hear her, take her home in a taxi “where they removed her pink voile and sheer underthings and stockings.”  They put her to bed and as her laughter, increasingly hysterical, turns to screams, send for a doctor, but since it was a Saturday evening, one couldn’t easily be found.

An abandoned woman, one might argue, is a force of nature. While Dido limited the destruction by killing herself with a sword Aneas, her lover and the founder of Rome, had left her as a souvenir, Medea murdered her own sons by Jason, who abandoned her, as well as various others.

“Can one continue to live if one loses love?” Ferrante asks in an essay contained in her book of miscellany called Frantumaglia. “It seems like a pretty much discredited subject; in reality it’s the question most crudely posed by female existence. The loss of love is a failure; it causes an absence of sense.”  [my emphasis, again]

I think that based on what we know about her, Minnie fell in love with the bank clerk, or convinced herself she was in love and he loved her because, as a still-eligible woman who had never had such love, it was essential. She tried to swallow his desertion but couldn’t. It eventually built up to the point where retribution was necessary and since she apparently couldn’t take it out on him, she found a way to take it out on society.

She’s laughing because society bought it as she knew society would. In her pink voile dress and sheer underthings, she represented herself as fragile white Southern womanhood, viewed as being always under threat of transgressive Black male desires.

Before the rumored incident, as we know, men sitting and lounging in storefronts “did not even follow her with their eyes anymore.”  But after the rumor, as she and her friends are heading for the theater,  ”even the young men lounging in the doorway tipped their hats and followed with their eyes the motion of her hips and legs when she passed.”

Her sex appeal restored, she doesn’t have to think of herself as an abandoned old maid – at not even 40, at least for now.

But at the same time, Minnie perhaps only gradually comes to realize that by launching the rumor, she was unleashing terrible forces that would result in violence, not against the bank clerk or people who had laughed at her, but against someone who had nothing to do with her. And so her laughs turn to screams.

This is a plausible psychological explanation of the story, the leader of a seminar in which Dry September was considered, told me after reading this paper. He, himself, preferred what he called a sociological interpretation.

Whereas I viewed this as fundamentally a story about a woman in which a lynching occurs, he viewed it as a story about a lynching in which a number of characters appear, important among them a woman named Minnie Cooper. But her emotional state in his eyes is distinctly secondary and almost irrelevant to the prevailing attitudes toward race in a Southern town like Jefferson.

Interestingly, Faulkner, in a question-and-answer session at the University of Virginia, appeared to suggest the story about Minnie could stand independent of an incident involving race.

A woman asked a question, the final words of which were unclear in the recording, to which Faulkner replied:

"Yes. In which a—a—a woman, in that condition of frustration after menopause or about menopause, could have caused that sort of tragedy. It wouldn't necessarily have to have a—a—a colored note in it. Not necessarily that same story, but she could have caused that same grief, injustice, crime."

In this case, Minnie, at nearly 40, was still about 10 years away from menopause. So, I will stick with abandonment as what prompted actions on her part that resulted in a crime.

-----

The second most interesting character in Dry September is John McLendon. “He had commanded troops at the front in France and had been decorated for valor,” Faulker’s narrator tells us. We also learn that he is married and lives “in a neat new house” that “was trim and fresh as a birdcage and almost as small, with its clean, green-and-white paint.”

That’s almost all we know.

We don’t know anything about his background other than that he led troops in WWI and we don’t know his current occupation which, based on the size of his house, doesn’t appear to be anything grand. He may be from a level of society similar to that of Minnie Cooper – “comfortable,” but not “the best people.”

One other thing we do know, however, is that he is apparently tired of his wife, who has sat up in a chair until midnight, awaiting his arrival home, her face “strained, pale and weary-looking.”

McClendon, irritated to see her, accuses her of not obeying his instructions not to stay up “to see when I come in.”  He catches her shoulder then, half strikes, half flings her across the chair, where she remains, watching him leave the room.  So much for fragile, vulnerable Southern womanhood that must be protected at all costs.

What is eating McClendon – his apparent lust to kill a Black male, guilty or innocent; his disinterest in and maltreatment of his wife?

The narrator makes a point of McLendon’s army background and his alpha-male, “leader of men” swagger at the barber shop; his insistence on calling the shots as to what to do with Mayes.

Has it been hard for him to return to civilian life, where he is probably a person of little consequence, compared to his service in the Army?  Does he feel disrespected and, perhaps a bit like Minnie, needs an outlet for his frustrations?  Or was he changed by the violence and killing he went through in the recent conflict?

It's impossible to say, but Faulker seems intent on making it clear service in the Army does not have to corrupt a man.

During his time in the barbershop, “the third speaker rose and grasped McLendon's arm; he too had been a soldier. ‘Now, now. Let's figure this thing out. Who knows anything about what really happened?’”  McLendon brushes him aside.

And during the car ride out to ice plant, when Hawkshaw again insists Mayes is innocent, the second former soldier says: “Sure, sure. We’re just going to talk to him a little; that’s all” and he tried to quiet the young, man, Butch, who loudly insists otherwise.

It's not the Army per se that has corrupted McLendon. But what has? As a man who can own little more than a house the size of a birdcage, like the uneducated Butch, does he, too feel threatened by possible advances by the Black population and unable to take out his social frustrations on his white “betters,” finds another avenue?

It’s a grim picture much at odds with that of slow-speaking, ever-so-polite Southern white society.

 


Sunday, November 22, 2020

It's a Good Moment to be a Black Artist in the U.S.

 "Despite the really horrific climate we've reached, it still doesn't distract me from the fact of how amazing it is to be a Black artist right now,'' Brooklyn sculptor Simone Leigh told the New York Times upon being selected to represent the U.S. at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

That was the lead paragraph of an article I wrote on Oct. 15.  You can find it here.

In a similar vein, the New York Times led it's Nov. 2020 "Weekend Arts" section with an extensive write-up of Derek Fordjour, a Black artist who paints, sculpts and makes film and video.

See the source image

"I'm benefiting from a moment," he told the NYT, echoing the sentiments of Ms Leigh. "I recognize that I'm an artist in society and when society goes and moves in a different direction I've still got to be rooted in what I'm doing."

Where society, as represented by the art world, is going now is in the direction of strongly promoting the work of Black artists, not necessarily unfairly in view of a certain amount of neglect if not outright discrimination in times past.  But the point is, times have changed, for the moment (as Fordjour put it)  at any rate. White privilege has been replaced by Black privilege and artists like Mr. Fordjour are clearly enjoying their recognition.

According to the NYT, Fordjour "was a market sensation in 2019" as evidenced in part by the sale of one of his paintings at auction for a price double the estimate. And, the paper noted, he was sued last March by a former New York gallery owner for not living up to an agreement allegedly made back in 2014 to deliver 20 canvases. The case, which Fordjour's attorneys are seeking to have dismissed, is still pending. But it is illustrative of the current state of demand for the artist's work.

Fordjour, now 46, had a considerable climb up to his current prominence. It took 20 years from his first stab at art school to his first museum show earlier this year at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. That followed a commission by New York's Whitney Museum to create a mural near its building. entitled Half Mast (2018). It depicts a crowd of people with some depicted as rifle targets as a commentary on violence in the U.S. against people of color.

The New York Times write-up of Fordjour was occasioned by a current show of his works, entitled "Self Must Die," at New York's Petzel Gallery. It runs through Dec. 19. At a full two and a half pages of a section that ran only 14 pages, that's definitely indicative of "the moment."

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

A Little Help From Manohla Dargis on What Women Want


"Like many women, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to move through the world. How to walk with confidence but not too much swing. How to stand with my shoulders back without sticking out my chest. How to smile, like a nice girl. How to cross my legs, like a lady. How to speak up, within reason. How to take up space but not too much. Yet I love watching women who take up space, who swagger and sometimes wildly crash."

That quote is the first paragraph of a recent article by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis and it is interesting in the context of writing fiction. How should women be depicted (much, of course, depends upon the era in which a story is set) and what do they want?

In a nutshell, Dargis wants to see women in action and the more extreme, the better. She's an advocate of what one might call "the alpha-female." As is the case with respect to the proverbial alpha-male -- a stock character of popular fiction -- the alpha-female is a person who exerts control over other people and her environment. She makes things happen and if people get in her way, they better have more physical clout than she has.

Among others, Dargis points to actress Charlize Theron who she praises for kicking butt "again and again" in "Atomic Blonde," an action thriller released in 2017, and who now stars in "The Old Guard," described by Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday as "a violent, fantastical action thriller about a group of supernatural mercenaries."

"The Old Guard" has recently received a lot of critical attention because it is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and as such, is said to be the first graphic, or comic book-based, film directed by a black woman.

The secret power of the supernatural mercenaries is that they are impossible to kill -- sort of like kick-boxing cockroaches, one suspects.

One of things Dargis said she liked to watch on YouTube were stunt videos from action films centered on women.

"Only recently did I grasp that the behind-the-scenes videos I was looking at were showing women kicking and punching their way to different kinds of female representation," she said.

This is in sharp contrast to women of the relatively recent past.

"In the films I saw growing up in the 1970s, including those from the classical era, women didn’t register as especially physical unless they were swimming, riding a horse or dancing, like Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers, whose athleticism was bound up with the feminine ideals of their era. Women in movies — the stars, at any rate, the desirable and desiring ones — were elegant, small, tidy and contained, even at their curviest," Dargis said.

"And then," she continued, "there was Shelley Winters, whose heroic swim in the 1972 disaster flick 'The Poseidon Adventure' destroyed me. Her matronly Belle, a former competitive swimmer, takes the plunge to save the leading man. She succeeds but dies."

We're all familiar with the objectification of women -- the male gaze. But it seems women can objectify women as well.

Here's Dargis again:

"There’s a potent feminist critique that women have long been made to be looked at for male pleasure in movies and elsewhere. But women also look, and the female gaze always complicates that dynamic. Winters’s big, powerful, fish-pale thighs complicated it for me."

There's more on that theme (the female gaze) in the article by Dargis plus and a lot more on how violence -- as brutal as possible -- becomes women. Who needs men at all, one begins to wonder, except perhaps as a punching bag when women aren't slugging it out with each other?

But back to "The Old Guard" and it's director.

In the above-referenced Washington Post article by Ann Hornaday, Prince Bythewood is quoted as that her identity as an African-American woman informed every decision she made, some of which involved making sure fight scenes were depicted from a different angle than the usual "white male gaze."

One scene in particular -- a fight between two women on a cargo plane -- was said to be particularly sensitive for the director.

"I didn't want anyone to look at that and say, 'That's a sexy cat fight' [as white, but not males of other races, apparently would]," Prince-Bythewood was quoted as saying. "No, I want you to see two badass women going toe-to-toe, but also see their vulnerability within that. Because for me that's what badass is: that swagger, that strength, but also empathy and vulnerability."

Anyway -- all of the above is offered by way of providing a few clues to help those interested in coming  up with a contemporary answer to the age-old question: "what do woman want?"