Monthly Archives: August 2020
By John Kendall Hawkins
Those Ancient Men of Genius who rifled Nature by the Torch-Light of Reason even to her very Nudities, have been run a-ground in this unknown Channel; the Wind has blown out the Candle of Reason, and left them all in the Dark.
Daniel Defoe, The Storm (1704)
When author James Dunkerley tells would-be readers of Crusoe and his Consequences that the first thing they should do before reading his book is re-visit Defoe’s castaway saga, I let out a groan. Such re-reading is a sensible approach. But I never got over the many troubling questions I was left with after making my way through the thick underbrush of Defoe’s prose some 30 years ago in an undergraduate course called Adventure: Art and Literature.
Consider this: Over the many decades, Robinson Crusoe has been transmogrified from the lurid tale of selfishness, hypocrisy, insistent self-destructiveness, emotional shallowness, and so on, into a work of self-reliance and “rugged individualism.” What I remember about Crusoe, at my peril, are unresolved questions and the nagging feeling that I was being pushed to celebrate a literary asshole. (What, I thought, I should read Justine next and see heroism?)
Crusoe is from the beginning neither a father-fearing nor a God-fearing son; there’s nothing Byronic about him (he doesn’t have Don Juan’s libido); and while he sees an early near-drowning at sea as a sign of God’s wrath for his insubordination, a night of swashbuckling tankard-tipping sea-chantey drunkenness at the local tavern drowns his imploration to God, the Latter’s warning lost in the morning-after wreckage of his hangover. He’s a hopeless, faithless sinner, and he knows it. He tells us, “[W]e went the old way of all sailors; the punch was made, and I was made drunk with it, and in that one night’s wickedness I drowned all my repentance, all my reflections upon my past conduct, and all my resolutions for the future.”
So many questions: To make the ‘self-isolationist’ Crusoe an admirable “rugged individualist,” we have to conveniently forget his intersections with slavery. Following his aforementioned hangover, Crusoe sails again into sudden stormy seas and gets taken into slavery by a boorish Moorish pirate off Sallee (Morocco). He escapes, after two years, with the help of a boy named Xury; who he sells, (after conning Xury’s help with, “If you will be faithful to me, I will make you a great man…”) essentially as a slave, to a Portuguese captain on his way to Brazil, who shows Crusoe God’s kindness, and gets him to the New World, where he sets up a very successful colonial tobacco plantation. He pretends to be a Papist to collect the cash.
Middle Way style, Crusoe gets bored shitless after a few years of hardly earned success (and, incidentally, never writes home to Ma and Pa to say he’s still alive), signs on to a conspiracy with fellow planters to import slaves — through the so-called Atlantic Middle Passage — from Africa. (The same Africa from which he and Xury barely escaped in terror.) On his fateful journey, God shoots another warning across his moral bow (i.e., his ship sinks in another storm and he’s the sole soul survivor) and washes him up on his bespoke fatal ashore, which he later refers to as “the Island of Despair” — not a Hell so much as a Purgatory full of all the material trappings of the Middle Class he rejected.
Let’s recall that, in a series of raft trips to and from the grounded ship, the stranded Crusoe manages to salvage just about every possible useful item from the fully laden ship. He rescues “the seamen’s chests…filled with provisions…bread, rice, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat’s flesh…cordial waters…five or six gallons of sack…two or three bags full of nails and spikes, a great screwjack, a dozen or two of hatchets…a grindstone…two or three iron crows…muskets… powder more…all the men’s clothes…a spare fore-topsail, hammock, and some bedding…small ropes and rope twine…spare canvas…a great hogshead of bread, and three large runlets of rum or spirits, and a box of sugar, and a barrel of fine flour…” And that’s just after three of the dozen trips he made.
His Island of Despair has goats, seals, penguins, tortoises, fowl, eggs and, of course, fish. His fields are fecund and willing partners in his myriad agricultural schemes that gladly yield the corn, barley, and rice that fire up his quarantine quest to make loaves of multi-grain bread. Domesticated goats provide “two gallons of milk” per day. The island trees and vines are falling over themselves to provide bananas, grapes, cocoa, coconuts, mangoes….He builds a fenced-in “fortress,” his main abode, but has two other retreats on remote parts of the island, as well as his “apartment in the tree.”
At one point, he gets sleepy after smoking “tobacco,” which suggests it could be wacky tobacky. (The Portuguese were profligate slavers, and dagga-smoking was widespread among Africans.) He wakes up and finds himself a jack of all trades: he’s a potter; a farmer; an iron smith; a housebuilder; a boat builder. He’s the ship’s dog and two cats. And, many years later, when he nabs Friday, after the latter manages to barely (and nakedly) escape from cannibals, he’s got himself a slave again. You “Friday,” Me “Master,” he tells the dinner escapee, who probably felt like he’d gone from the pot (which Crusoe has plenty of) into the fire. Poor Friday, cracker want another polly. What more could a Middle Class man want?
Still, we seem content dealing with updated versions of Crusoe; okay with seeing him as an inspiring “rugged individualist,” or Republican (or, these days, even a Joe Biden Democrat), stripped of moral meat by a form of censorship that turns the story into pablum for young minds, such as in the 1918 Educational Publishing Company version titled, An American Robinson Crusoe for American Boys and Girls, which begins, “There once lived in the city of New York, a boy by the name of Robinson Crusoe.” Why bother re-reading the original 18th century novel, with its difficult English, political and social concerns we find it hard to relate to, religious intensity we can’t fathom, and a “hero” some find difficult to like?
In Crusoe and His Consequences, Dunkerley performs a kind of stock-taking of the tale after 300 years, and concedes that Crusoe’s character can seem “unedifying,” especially his post-Island return to England, where he spends no time remembering his long-dead parents, and is quick to go abroad again (by sea) after his wife dies suddenly. Crusoe’s young children are fobbed off in the process. It “[makes] you wonder,” Dunkerley wrote in a private email, “if Defoe is setting [Crusoe] and us up.” It’s true, a thoughtful re-reading of the ‘parable’ will make you wonder if Defoe is not pulling your leg.
Dunkerley divides Crusoe and His Consequences into two sections: “Crusoe” and “Defoe.” “Crusoe” is essentially a synopsis of the novel, and “Defoe” is a critical biographical appraisal of the author. Dunkerley makes it clear that his book is not an advanced academic study; there is plenty of scholarly analysis out there already. (Even Marx has a go in Das Kapital.) But Dunkerley proposes a literate person’s guide to a review of what is widely regarded as the first English “realist” novel. Dunkerley is interested in discovering “why a narrative text that is in so many ways a dreadful mess has come to be ‘a classic’, not just in literary terms but in those of economics (‘political arithmetick’), politics, and popular culture as well.”
As his simple book partition suggests, Dunkerley wants to separate Crusoe from his author. The simplest way to do that is to remind the reader that Defoe went on to write three other novels, widely regarded as masterpieces: Moll Flanders, Roxana, and A Journal of the Plague. He is by no means a one-trick literary pony. In addition, Dunkerley describes Defoe as “the first professional journalist.” He was a ferocious, energetic journo, who was deeply ensconced in the politics of the time. Like his contemporary Jonathan Swift, Defoe operated his own newspaper, The Review, the reportage and commentary of which became the catalyst for coffeehouse talk. (Coffeehouses helped expand the ‘public sphere’ and created locales for the dissemination of ideas — old and new.)
Dunkerley points out that Defoe “as a journalist…set about his new trade in an innovative and engaging manner,” including, for instance, in his accounts of the Great Storm of November 1703, which is described, in the introduction to Defoe’s The Storm, as still “the worst storm in British history…An extratropical cyclone of unusual ferocity,” Defoe used “eyewitness accounts of the experience of the tempest.” Previously it had been Voice of God reporting on secondary accounts. The Storm, along with an account of Scottish privateer Alexander Selkirk’s real-life experience as a castaway on an uninhabited island from 1704-09, were inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
To comprehend Defoe more deeply we have to remember that he lived during The Age of Enlightenment, which followed, after a while, from the Dark Ages. He grew up in a time of great natural disasters, not only experiencing the Great Storm, but he was also grew up during the Great Plague of London (1665-6), which killed an estimated 100,000 people, and that was followed, a year later, by the Great Fire of London, which destroyed approximately 70% of London, including, writes Dunkerley, “ninety churches.”
Dunkerley also does a good job engaging the reader in the political milieu of Defoe’s time. The American Constitution (just down the historical road) calls for a separation of Church and State — don’t mix them, don’t talk about them at dinner: things get thrown and overthrown. Dunkerley brings to life the dynamism of battles between Protestants and Catholics, in their various guises, as they fought over thrones and creeds. Game of Thrones live. Out of this mess of politicking came notions of absolute power. But Defoe defied such postures. As Dunkerley writes “[Defoe was] against the divine right of kings, against the doctrine of passive obedience, and against absolutism,” and he fought against it all, in his fiction and journalism and political activities.
Americans would appreciate Defoe’s detestation for the 1% of his time, and the way justice favored the monied. Dunkerley writes, “the power and practice of the upper classes were such that they were always treated more leniently than the poor man,” which enraged Defoe: “These are all cobweb laws in which the small flies are catched, and the great ones break through.” Defoe knew poverty. He had been “broken” (declared bankrupt) twice, and “the experience of bankruptcy had been so traumatic that it reappeared many times in his writing on economic and commercial matters.” Dunkerley added, significantly, “Bankruptcy, in short, is a shipwreck.” (Indeed, Defoe,despite all of his literary success,ended up in hiding from creditors and dying alone.)
But he got into more serious hot water when he virtually lampooned the upper classes in his 1250-line poem, “The True Born Englishman: A Satyr,” in which he took the mickey out of the mousey elites by pointing out their debauched beginnings:
. . . These are the Heroes that despise the Dutch,
And rail at new-come Foreigners so much;
Forgetting that themselves are all deriv’d
From the most Scoundrel Race that ever liv’d.
And on and on it goes, pushing the envelope of the times’ “acceptable rhetoric.” Dunkerley goes to gauge response to the poem: “Even those who despised his prolixity, lack of gentility, and whiggish convictions recognised its power, which stands up pretty well in the age of UKIP, the DUP, and Brexit.”
Later, he would enrage Queen Anne when he opposed her edicts of religious intolerance. Dunkerley observes,
Defoe mostly got into trouble—serious trouble threatening judicial execution as well as vigilante violence—over religious matters and their political implications. So, although the doctrinal landscape of over three hundred years ago is complex as well as alien, we do have to recognise that it was just as important to those living at the time as, say, Brexit or Trump are today.
Defoe’s The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church was so ill-received by so many that he was forced to go on the lam for months.
After he was finally caught, he was tried for sedition and sentenced to the pillory. He was also forbidden from mouthing against the monarchy for 7 years. He responded by writing “a defiant poem, even before he entered the stocks, breaking within days the sentence of seven years’ dutiful compliance.” The sentence was deemed so harsh that public sentiments turned in his favor, and, writes Dunkerley, “According to legend, it was fresh flowers, not eggs and tomatoes, that were thrown in symbolic repudiation of the law.”
Defoe was not only a master novelist and in the vanguard of real journalism, he also even penned a little-known science fiction story titled, “The Consolidator.” Dunkerley raves,
The images in the story are extraordinarily innovative, involving communication between China and the moon, where there exists a species of lunar telepathy, a truth-revealing telescope, ‘elevators’ that enabled communion with departed souls, and a lie-detecting chair.
So, it’s clear that Defoe was a leading edge literary figure, and a political dynamo.
In addition, he’s regarded as a pioneering “feminist” writer for his portrayal of heroines Moll Flanders and Roxana. No less than the darling of academic feminism, Virginia Woolf, praised him vociferously:
On any monument worthy the name of monument the names of Moll Flanders and Roxanna, at least, should be carved as deeply as the name of Defoe. They stand among the few English novels which we can call indisputably great.
So, even if Crusoe ends up, in a revaluation, falling short of real “rugged individualism,” Defoe himself, a complex character in a complex time, lived up to his own hype.
Crusoe and his Consequences is a short, engaging read that is full of all kinds of interesting details of Daniel Defoe’s life and times, and how they become the background of Robinson Crusoe’s odyssey. There are also tantalizing streams of information that you sometimes do double-takes over, such as when Dunkerley relates that “as Warden of the Mint, Isaac Newton ordered at least a dozen executions of clippers and counterfeiters following the recoinage of 1696.” Oy, what a fig that Newton was!
Again, there have been so many versions of Robinson Crusoe produced over the last three centuries that it has sprouted its own literary genre: Robinsonade. From children’s retellings in Europe and America, to novels, poems, video games, films and TV series based on Crusoe or its themes (Luis Bunuel’s Crusoe, Tom Hanks’ Castaway, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and even Gilligan’s Island), they all enact aspects of concern a castaway faces in his or her new found self-isolation. Among the Robinsonade concerns are: progress through technology; the rebuilding of civilisation; economic achievement; hostile nature. Some of these are contemporary concerns as well. We are currently facing hostile nature (and, maybe soon enough, civilization will need rebuilding).
Dunkerley suggests that in our re-reading of Crusoe we put away the Little Boy/Little Girl glasses we were handed in class as kids, and read the parable, as literate adults, with new eyes, for the first time. Maybe you’ll still see it the same old way, or maybe you’ll go the way of the comical master-slave dialectical movie version, Man Friday, and hope it ends differently for the colonial slaver.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.
- Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind
The opening line of “No Makeup,” the fourth poem in Sharon Olds’ new collection, Arias, chuckled me up some: “Maybe one reason I do not wear makeup is to scare people.” It’s funny, has a political edge, and gets you naughtily thinking about all the people out there hiding behind masks. (I saw a girl the other day and wondered whether all those Broadway layers of foundation, BB cream, highlighter and mascara were necessary to serve me up an Italian spuckie at Subway.) Olds’ engaging humor always leads you toward an edgy question, like: Makeup for what?
Olds, former winner of the Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot prizes for poetry (and short-listed for the 2019 T.S. Eliot prize for Arias), is in a fine fettle here. Mixing up memory and desire, but with nothing wasted, her humane, savvy, lyrical takes on ordinary experiences, that often exist somewhere between the concrete and abstract, are thoroughly enthralling, and often movingly accessible.
Born in 1942, Olds spent her early childhood in the Bay Area before being sent East to the Dana Halls School in Massachusetts. She did her undergraduate work at Stanford and earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1972. According to the biographical information at poetryfoundation.org, she grew up a “hellfire Calvinist,” which seems to have had a significant effect on her psychosexual development and later personal mythopoesis. She has lived in New York City for decades.
Olds has been called a “confessional” poet, in the mold of Sylvia Plath or even Emily Dickinson, but it’s not like that: confessional poets are often stuck in a personal past that can strain an empathetic read; Plath, for instance, had a Nazi Daddy thing to resolve — which she did, in the end, with gas. But Olds, for all her mother-meted (and metered) childhood abuse, survives with witty and strange ontological bursts of insight. She puts her head into gas clouds of life-affirming atoms. She never strains empathy, but seems to produce new streams of it.
She’s also too hip to be darkly backward: she’s tuned in to the Now and Future, politically, sexually, intellectually, and poetically. Her poem, “My Godlessness,” fits right in with the virtueless times we live in. Surprisingly, and anti-confessionally, she writes:
My mother beating me was not the source
of my godlessness. The source was not
the rape and murder of my classmate, or the rapes
and murders of our fellow citizens.
It was not earth, or water, or air.
Instead, perhaps envisioning Trump and the DC circus forever intown, she writes: “The source of my godlessness was cruelty / and abuse of power, its minions were like the / flame-headed one roaring now / from the pulpit, the orange-haired extinctor.”
Arias contains six parts: Meeting A Stranger, Arias, Run Away Up, The New Knowing, Elegies, and First Child. This gives some of the game away, but there’s more. I like to think of the collection as an opera, loose, decentralized, postmodern, but full of arias — 38 of them to be exact — and leitmotifs (“My mother beat me in 4/4 time” being the main one), finely executed music, sexual tension (and colorful release), and it’s a collection that features beginnings, middles and ends. An opera, but more Tommy than Rigoletto. And Olds is a diva from birth to death in these poems.
There are many strands and streams of themes that run through the river of Olds’ work. In Arias, she has many poems about dealing with strangers, human self-destructiveness, sexuality, motherhood, and the brilliant flashes of a personal pantheism. All that in addition to paeans to language, love, and social awareness. Where to begin an appreciation …
Early in the collection, Olds conjures up a familiar remembrance of the confusion and horror of the WTC towers coming down. Suddenly, there is that image of white dust and smoke coming at you like a billowing fog monster, people running for cover. In “Looking South at Lower Manhattan, Where the Towers Had Been,” the poet in Olds wants to make sense of the horror and panic, but stops herself:
…if you see me starting to talk about
something I know nothing about,
like the death of someone who’s a stranger to me,
step between me and language.
She observes: “oxygen, carbon, hydrogen” and the “sacred ashes / of strangers,” coming at the onlookers — at you, me. The in-your-face failure of humanity.
But there is humor, too (sorta), in these transactions with strangers. At the airport, in “Departure Gate Aria,” she imagines herself at the airport as a “guardian spirit,” who comes across a beclouded woman with sandals and engages her in conversation just long enough to praise how her sandals complement the woman’s garments and soul: “You look / beautiful and good,” she says, and watches the clouds disappear from the woman’s face. The poet is chuffed and thinks:
I bustled off—
so this is what I’ll do, now,
instead of kissing and being kissed, I’ll
go through airports praising people, like an
Antichrist saying, You do not need
to change your life.
Spoken like a true hell-fired up Calvanist on a comical mission from God.
And stepping back, as the poet must, she observes in “8 Moons,” the human condition, its continued dissociation (One thinks: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.” T.S. Eliot), even into the 21st century, she considers:
We can’t imagine the length of time
it took to make the universe.
And the death of the earth—for most of us,
unimaginable, and therefore
A failure of vision so deep it represents a black hole in consciousness where even the brightest lights of our species must inevitably perish.
Sharon Olds is known for going to poetic places where other more angelic types fear to tread — like the joy of sexuality — as if it only belonged on TV in, say, Sex and the City, but must get itself to a nunnery in poetic form. Olds mocks this notion immediately in “Breaking Bad Aria,” when she imagines why the shifty Heisenberg (Walter White) resonates with men: “he gets sexually aroused by / cooking meth and having / killed someone, it excites him so much he fucks /
harder than he has ever fucked—” Later in the poem, she has her own quake: “What was arousing, to me, / for three decades, was faithfulness, the / chains of orgasms extreme beyond violent /in safety.” She never lost her faith.
In “Gliss Aria” she celebrates the bliss she’s had with the gliss of her lower lips, although, she writes, “sometimes I have left them untouched, / so they cannot sing, yet they’ve been sweet to me, / liquidy, sleek, lissome, with some / faint fragrance of salted nectar.” At other times it’s more about the music, as when she carts some LPs with her over to her lover’s place and gets laid for the first time:
—my body which had hardly been touched,
even through my clothes—to be that passive
verb, with flowered in it, by a light-shedding
laughing man who seemed to not love
anyone, like a god.
Her erotic mythopoesis at work. Her caesuras opening like orchidal maneuvers in the dark.
Some of my favorite sections of her work in Arias comes in the joie de vivre and humor of her baby poems. In “Objective Permanence Aria,” Olds imagines that first self-conscious moment of delightful other-being: “What a moment it was, in my life, when my mother / would leave the room, and I knew she still /existed! I was connected to that giant /flower on legs, that huge human / bee, even when the evidence of her / was invisible to me.” In “My First Two Weeks,” the baby drolly ‘recalls’ “I lived in a collective, / a commune of newborns” and, as for her relationship to Mom, “I commandeered those teats!” Oh, sweet liebfraumilch!
But such Blakean songs of innocence are more than balanced out by her songs of experience in a childhood of beatings at the hands of her mother. Her many arias in the collection provide a leitmotif that provide a dramatic tension, as it were, a sense that the trauma is unresolved. You read a few poems after a beating, and move on to readings that delve into depths elsewhere and then — bam! — there she is again, in “Waist Aria,” this ghost-child being told,
Young lady—go up and wait for me
with your clothes off, below the waist—
Over and over again, these words cry out from the page unexpectedly, at first, until the 4/4 time becomes the scene of a crime the poet must return to or die in.
Because of Olds’ ardent love for her mother, she keeps searching for answers in the poetry of her pain. In “I Do Not Know If It Is True, but I Think,” the poet introduces the musical pathology she shares with her mother, as if the mother, too, found release in rhyme and time:
My mother beat me to the meter of “Onward,
Christian Soldiers.” She speeded up
the tempo which dragged, in church—Slow-ly
On-ward Bo-ring Chris-tian Sol-diers—
and she got to give pain, maybe the same
pain her mother had given her
and her mother’s mother had given her mother
The violent hairbrush passed on like an heirloomed musical instrument for use on her behind.
She is beaten because her mother wanted a boy, pre-named Timothy, and, instead, much to the mother’s dismay, a girl emerged out of the pain and quagmire of birth. In “Timothy Aria,” Olds writes, “I had been a star, / for a while, and I did not forget that I’d been / held, once, at some length, in passionate regard.” She holds the moment like a changeling, taking simple succor in the fact that her mother can love. In “Cold Tahoe Today,” the poet sub-merges with elements and goes to watery places: “I was an agate hunter, /a diver for transparent stone. / It meant so much to me to be / entirely inside that liquid world—” because there “No one could hit you, in there, no one could / pull their arm back fast enough / to strike.”
Several lovely poems are devoted to the release of her trauma after her mother dies. She tends, with her sister, to her mother’s pain-driven last hours from this realm in “Morphine elegy.” She becomes mother to her mother in “Dawn Song,” laying to rest a woman never at home in the world with these words, “And I want to say, to my / mother, my journeying laborer /who wandered here, with me in her hobo /sack—I want to put her to sleep / like an exhausted animal. Sleep, baby, / Sleep.”
My favorite poems from this collection have to do with Olds’ keen sense of existence seen not merely as anthropocentric, but as pantheistic: there is a sense of identifiable godliness in everything around us. Spinoza’s Ethics came to mind at first. But Olds’ is a pantheism that is devoid of moral authority; there is no guiding god; ours is a teleology of our own making. Nevertheless, there is a divine force identifiable in everything — right down to the molecular level. We interpenetrate each other, breath in each other’s dust, and ripple the fabric of creation when we exhale gases. Carl Sagan once said we are “star stuff,” composed literally of the same stuff as stars, and that opens up a whole new way of seeing existence.
These phenomenological poems include “Her Birthday As Ashes In Seawater,”
where her mother’s ashes have been dispersed, leaving “ —her nature unknowable, dense, / dispersed, her atomization a miracle.” She is part of the sea and the sea is part of the galaxy and the galaxy is part of — at least one of the universes. A reminder that when we scale up, anthropocentrism doesn’t fare well.
“My Parents’ Ashes (New York City, October, 2001)” returns the reader to the earlier Manhattan poem, written not long after 9/11, when the acrid dust of bones and buildings was still in the air, holding memory in place. It evokes an image of her parents’ ashes dispersed 3000 miles away in the Bay. Her evocation produces:
Maybe a molecule of her
has lain beside a molecule
of him, or interpenetrated
it, an element of her matter
bonding to an element of his
the currents carry them
back and forth under the Golden Gate.
Olds’ caesuras move back and forth with and against the current, her rhythms and imagery, stretching into the diaphanous reaches of language’s primordial brine. Returning to a place of object impermanence.
For Olds, these interpenetrations of being can be playful and funny, too, as in “Animal Crackers,” where she pokes fun at the notion of transubstantiation:
I ate Christ, and the bunny,
I want a Levine matzoh, I want
Dickinson by her own recipe,
and Keats, bright oatmeal brooch.
Pagan cannibalism; ingesting the other; incorporating the power. Or, as the philosopher Lennon said, I am You as You are Me and We are all Together-er-er.
Like most poets, especially of Olds’ calibre, intertextuality has significant influences — she’s read everybody; it can be difficult to discern her responses to other poets’ language. There’s some Plath, but only in an anti-Plath way; I sense Dickinson somehow in her caesuras and maybe in the loneliness at the core of her ostensible extraversion; but, in at least one poem, “Cervix Aria,” I hear Blake:
When I held a snapdragon gently by its jaws
and squeezed, so they opened, it was as if
the volt at the hinge of the maw of the blossom leaped
open at the same instant as the glug!
at the core of my body
We almost knew this, at five, four,
three—when we saw the truth of beauty,
our body, abashed, gulped.
I’d give her Pulitzer Prize, too, for that.
“Cervix Aria” is a poem that could probably go far in summing up the aim of this collection. We come into the world already full of the knowledge we will spend our lives seeking — through education, socialization — and we talk each other out of wisdom, our common language is also our common ignorance. We can only approximate each other’s being. And that we do through the poetry of love.
Poetry should be heard, they say, and not just be a product of textuality, of you performing in your own mind, but listening to the actual voice of an Other, hearing the tiny resin-driven flaws as the bow creates music out of friction. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is a rage of flaws driven to perfection. Olds can be heard reading her from ouvre at Poets.Org, site of the Academy of American Poets, where Olds has previously held the Chancellorship.
It’s always a wise thing for an avid reader, especially of politics these days, to take a break, step away from keyboard, hands in the air, and reconnect with metaphorical language, preferably away from the madding crowd, wandering lonely as a cloud somewhere. Go and listen. To your thoughts. And sing.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“And the day came / when the risk / to remain tight / in a bud / was more painful / than the risk / it took / to blossom.”
– Anaïs Nin, “Risk”
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / memory and desire, stirring / dull roots with spring rain.”
– T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
Lucid dreaming means to be aware that you are dreaming while doing so. Probably we’ve all had these kinds of dreams. Therapies have been built around lucid dreaming. Books have been written, sometimes equating it to an outer-body-experience inside the mind, and websites have popped up, including Lucidity.com. Philosophers have weighed in. As Nietzsche once said, in Human, All Too Human, “Misunderstanding of the dream. In the ages of crude primeval culture man believed that in dreams he got to know another real world; here is the origin of all metaphysics. Without the dream one would have found no occasion for a division of the world.”
But that’s not what Pamela Cohn’s on about in Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers. Not exactly. Cohn is more interested in a parallel hyper-seeing — waking up into your life and using a camera to help you do it, producing a cinematic experience, and reframing your way of thinking along the way. The 29 filmmakers Cohn interviews come from all parts of the world — Asia, Europe and the Americas — and their filmmaking covers the usual panoply of social issues, including immigration, race, gender issues, economics, surveillance state, selfhood, and the phenomenological use of the camera. Cohn writes, “My hope is that the effect of disparate personalities gathered together in one volume evokes an expansive and global conversation, not merely a series of dialogues strung together.”
The filmmakers journey away from the dulling Hollywood tropes and themes that filmmaking legend Dziga Vertov once referred to as “the new opium of the people,” and venture towards unchartered territory and a new language that shows rather than tells, such as what Vertov largely achieved in Man With A Camera. And that’s what Cohn sees these filmmakers doing: “Ultimately – and not to sound too precious about it – one of my overriding hopes for the compilation was that it would be a book of inspiration with a multivalent approach – for other artists, certainly, or anyone wanting to take the ‘risk of blossoming.’”
One illustrative example of the power to express a transformative experience by means of filmmaking may be seen in Michael Robinson’s short film, The General Returns from One Place to Another. The film presents a disturbed space inhabited by dream-seeing human-oids, representative of early David Lynch films, where a unspeaking character looks almost into the lens — as if the viewer is sensed, until an uncanny connection is made that sticks with you; pop music fading in and out, along with popping sounds (fireworks? thunder?) that elicit a wistfulness that doubles in the viewer’s mind (at least mine). Here is the video:
I interviewed Pamela Cohn recently about her conversations with the 29 filmmakers. Here is an edited transcript of our ‘conversation.’
Did you see or sense something similar to what I did in Michael Robinson’s The General Returns?
Robinson admits that there were almost extra-sensory signifiers going on for him when he made that video but like much of his work (he’s a prolific collage artist as well), he had unwittingly gathered all the elements that would make it work for him in terms of the dream logic he uses to craft story. As you’ve read in the book, David Lynch is a huge influence for Michael. From the longer version of the conversation I had with him – some of which appears in the book but was edited down quite a bit for space issues: “I wanted the darkness and damnation of the text to build against what felt like an increasingly floral or beautiful background though the images are sort of dark and mechanical too. The weight of that damnation collapses the text and then you have to reckon with how the various parts continue. I wanted this tug-of-war between beautiful image and ominous sound and the text to finally collapse…That helped me a bit with Onward Lossless Follows because like with The General, I sat down to make it with all these various pieces I had gathered and a pretty troubled heart to try to figure out what was going on. It, too, fell into place in a way that seemed like it knew more about me than I knew about myself.” So a lot of this is mysterious for the artist as well and that’s why his work is so timeless and ineffable, detached from any kind of thesis or strict discipline of logical thought.
One definition of Lucid Dreaming is simply ‘being aware that you are dreaming’ as a kind of stem reality you can grow stuff from. Can you elaborate on the concept and how it applies to your filmmakers?
These works are about action – memory as action, vision and writing as action. And unending sources of faith in one’s voice and vision. In the dream state, there are signposts – mysterious and sometimes uncanny – that cannot easily be directly defined. Allowing oneself to practice the discipline of dreaming while awake is something that takes most of us a lifetime to interpret, to process. For artists, it doesn’t stop at the process; it transforms into the slipstream of the physical world, which is more surreal than one’s dream state could ever hope to be. There’s an open conduit in that liminal space where dream state and interpretation and action swirl around one another. Ever since coming across the term lucid dreaming – a state where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming – it’s always stuck in my mind as the perfect term to describe the cinema experience.
The kinds of experiments filmmakers in Lucid Dreaming are trying out seem so ambitious.
It is ambitious – and so often misunderstood. To attach the moniker of “experimental” to any project is also ambitious – and risky. But what these makers are adept at is creating narrative parallels to what most human beings go through, asking deeper questions about who we are, what our relationships and responsibilities are to ourselves and to one another, and using dialogues between image and sound that create an impressionistic and poetic cinema, creating resonances that can stimulate the mind and heart of the viewer rather than dictate to it or explain complex thoughts in a tiresome and didactic way. It is a time for questioning, a time for seeking, a time for reflection, and a time for deeper connectivity. It is the hardest thing to achieve but so necessary, now more than ever.
Roberto Minervini’s work with Black southern women feels like something of a mix of Studs Terkel’s oral history project and the southern and Caribbean explorations of Zora Neale Hurston. Do they have the same focus? Are their angles the same?
Studs Terkel was first and foremost a cultural anthropologist, in my opinion, and on the surface, you could say Minervini is working within a similar discipline. However, what is vital to Minervini, first and foremost, are the relationships he develops with his protagonists – the individuals he is asking to “re-enact” their lives for his camera – most of whom he’s known for a long time as friends. He considers them full collaborators in this endeavor and uses the camera as a conduit of sorts for emotional reverberations to fly back and forth. He is drawn, as well, to the underbelly of society and wants to shine a light on people who are often cast adrift or live on the margins, individuals with very little opportunity to be seen, heard, and counted, and whom we rarely see represented in mainstream media.
How would you describe the genre or genres described in Lucid Dreaming? Multi-plexual? Phenomenological kitsch? Or some new event in cinema?
The makers in the book tend to generally create their own style or “genre” in the ways in which they put together their work: fiction/non-fiction/memoir/(auto) biography – steeped in documentary practice. Some, we can say, work in genre-free zones with the understanding that they endeavor to use image and sound as a painter uses color, texture and shape, attempting to lay down on a blank flat canvas complex emotions, experiences, sensations, and stories/myths. The book exists so that I could give makers a platform to talk about the complexities of that and the high level of difficulty involved in communicating this way.
Your section on “Visioning with Sound” was interesting, because we often go to the mainstream cinema believing we are interacting with visual narrative almost exclusively, and we can forget how essential audio is to the storytelling. Music cues us on how to respond, sound effects help us to interpret.
Yes, most makers admit that their soundscapes are there, in essence, to manipulate the viewer emotionally. It is a form of control that makers such as Deborah Stratman, Michael Robinson, Gürcan Keltek, and Dónal Foreman can discuss so articulately. All agree that sound is powerful and these makers work very hard to master those effects for maximum emotional impact. I agree completely that in much mainstream fare – documentaries sometimes being the worst offenders – music especially is used profligately and irresponsibly – and annoyingly. Meaning the more bombastic the soundtrack or soundscape, the more suspicious I am of what I’m being shown.
What are your reflections on the aesthetic or practical differences between black-and-white and color? Gürcan Keltek answers this partially in your book with: “I used to work in the film development industry and all the things I used to work with related to getting these highly polished, clean, pristine color images. It started to make me kind of sick. The presentation of beauty in the industry and how people deal with those images made me feel that there’s something inaccurate built into how we perceive things, in general.”
I have been shooting black and white photography for the last 20 years. I, too, think that there is a possibility for purer storytelling but there’s a big difference between looking at it as merely de-saturating or leaching color from something versus using duotone to express a desire to focus on other things that are going on in the frame. But as Gürcan also states, there are makers who choose to work in black and white in a quite pretentious way, with no real rhyme or reason as to why they’re doing it except that it maybe looks more “arty”, or something superficial like that. I wanted to include this discussion in the book because it’s a vital and profound decision and each maker has his or her own personal and artistic reasons for working in black and white – see also Minervini, Maja Borg, etc.
Maja Borg’s documentary on the Venus Project, Future My Love (2012), opens up a new form of filmmaking, one oriented toward realistic practical visions of the future, new paradigms, for which there are concrete models. Can we document the future this way?
While Maja’s project does talk about utopian visions of the future, what’s at the heart of her film with Fresco are their Socratic dialogues about how they cope with the world’s shortcomings (in Fresco’s case) and a more personal exploration into shortcomings in interpersonal, intimate relationships, something that Maja explores in all of her work using her own corpus, her own point of view, and her own story. They found kindred spirits in one another, challenged one another, and learned from one another. Fresco ended up deeply appreciating what Maja made, although it was very far from what he’d expected. This kind of project really shows the fruits of an expansive, charismatic, and exploratory relationship between two brilliant minds – the film is the physical manifestation of what proved to be a profound relationship of respect and love.
Can independent or experimental filmmaking be an act of political disruption on a large enough scale to be meaningful or is it more an inspiration for would-be disrupters?
I don’t really think so. The art world is rarely that powerful and the people most impacted naturally flock to art and art making not so much to disrupt, but to perhaps start the thought process or the spiritual process that happens internally to each one of us when we encounter work that shakes up our senses, exposes new modes of being in the world. But film in and of itself can’t disrupt much of anything. Going back to Moore, I just feel his bid at disruption is misplaced because it’s so superficial and there for entertainment value mostly. When something is entertaining, it is our natural propensity to sort of turn off our discerning, critical brain and that’s not very useful when you’re trying to convince people to look at something in a new way.
Has being a judge of filmmaking altered or affected your approach as a filmmaker?
Yes I could say that it has. It’s certainly made me more discerning and because I’ve seen such diverse work over the years, it’s enabled me to develop an aesthetic and trust my own taste as to what I think is worth sharing with others – and what’s not, meaning it’s a completely subjective exercise. In terms of actual filmmaking, I would have to say I’ve made the same mistakes and taken the same missteps as anyone might do in attempting to transform something from my mind, to the page, to the screen. All I know is that the level of difficulty is very high, sometimes seemingly nigh impossible.
Who wants to watch short, independent, and/or experimental filmmakers anyway? And where can you watch them?
Those that crave, seek out and appreciate this kind of work can find it quite easily. Most of these makers self-produce and therefore have their own extensive websites. In this time of the corona pandemic, many makers are releasing select works for free or opening up their Vimeo pages or posting on YouTube. There is an extensive Filmography section guide for every maker in Lucid Dreaming at OR Books. Contacting the maker in many cases is very possible for they are the sole owners of their works and happy to be invited to share it.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“There is but one freedom, to put oneself right with death. After that, everything is possible.”
– Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1942-51
For those of us who grew up watching Charlton Heston films, we can recall enactments of heroic courage, both in the early development and later downward decline of human civilization. Heston gave us a magnificent Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956), returning all scraggly from the wilderness, like some people I knew in the Sixties returning from poetry communes, holding up that Decalogue in revolutionary resistance to the gold lust of Baal. He refused to be a slave in Ben Hur (1959). He gave us a Live Free or Die kind of ethos. No debt slavery, no bondage of any kind.
Toward the end of his career, Heston got dyspeptic over gun control and dystopic in his roles, teaming up with Edward G. Robinson (his last film role) in Soylent Green (1973) as Detective Thorn, a contraband-sniffing cop for the State in a world catastrophically fucked up by climate change and overpopulation and resorting to cannibalism (recycled humans, get it?) that he has a late epiphany as he watches his good friend, Sol, old enough to remember beauty, die by euthanasia, fading to a surround screen explosion of splendor and Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. He’s been told stories by Sol, but Thorn has never seen this before and he weeps, as if to say: My god, that’s the way it used to be?
But arguably his most important role came a few years earlier in Planet of the Apes, where he plays astronaut George Taylor, who, inadvertently time travels, and comes to realize that he’s landed on the future Earth controlled by fascist orangutans. Who can forget the final beach scene, Lady Liberty buried in sand, while an epiphanal Taylor exclaims, “Goddamn you all to hell!” When I remember his roles as a revolutionary, and an orbiter, I’m almost willing to cut him some slack for his last role, before dying, as president of the National Rifle Association, where he promised you’d have to pry his gun from his “cold, dead hands.” (Damn, the way things are going, we may need those 400 million guns after all.)
Apparently, the Taylor role is the one Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs chose to remember for Planet of the Humans, a recently released film on the politics of things Green and the looming environmental catastrophe ahead, once we knock back Covid-19 with some more Happy Zoom and recreational therapy Corona mask decorations. The film is written and directed by Gibbs; Moore was executive producer. The film was released on YouTube, in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (remember Earth?), and was available for viewing for free, until “controversy” over 4 seconds of Fair Use footage caused the film to be pulled by Google. It has since been put up, in its entirety, on Vimeo, without incident thus far.
As we recall, the last time Moore and Heston came head-to-head was in Bowling for Columbine (2002), and things got ugly during the interview, with Moore shooting his mouth off about Heston’s gun rhetoric, but not so much guns themselves (Moore is a member of the NRA). The question is: Why did Moore and Gibbs bring back Heston from the dead to ‘headline’ their environmental film? The answer is simple: Astronaut Taylor realized that They went ahead and did it: They blew up the planet despite years of warnings of impending catastrophe. And Moore and Gibbs are promoting the notion in their new film that we’re an environmental flashpoint away from a planet ruled by fascist orangutans. (Trump as omen.)
As you could almost guess from the title, the film wants to show and explain to us what happens when one species — guess which one — takes over the planet and shits repeatedly in its own well-feathered bed. Well, it’s a Michael Moore film (executive producer), so you can probably see where the film goes, after an opening sequence where passersby are asked the loaded gun of a question: How much longer do you think the human race has? Typically, no one has a clue. Then the soundtrack vibes somber synthetic, Gibbs’ voice-over all disillusioned monotone. Recalls Fahrenheit 9/11. Another bummer rant from Moore ahead.
According to Rolling Stone, “Moore and Gibbs said they decided to release it now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the hopes of getting people to reflect on ‘the role humans and their behavior have played in our fragile ecosystem.’” This hope seems promising, on the surface, where most of us interface and internet, and so many people have already expressed wonderment at how much the world will have changed while we’ve been in ‘lockdown’. Prisoners opine that way: I wonder how the world will be, without me, in 5 to10.
But, we have people expressing the sentiment after just two months of half-assed ‘self-isolation’ (though increased internet activity). The New Yorker has weighed in for the comfy middle class. Psychology Today speaks for the masses. Yesterday, I watched masked baseballers play in an empty stadium (big screens inexplicably lit up) and thought I was hallucinating: How come this vision (of the future) doesn’t scare the shit out of us? (Plus, these guys like to spit: Yuck, when they remove their masks!)
Planet of the Humans is a tone poem more than a documentary. The vision is in the title. It suggests not so much defeatism as disturbing resignation in the face of Climate Change. Moore and Gibbs argue that We Just Don’t Get It: The much ballyhooed “transition” from an age of fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy is illusory, ineffectual, and too late. The “intermittent” technologies – Solar and Wind – as well as, biomass burning, will never be fully removed from fossil fuel dependency and/or usage. Even if these technologies have improved exponentially in the last decade (when the film was being produced), we humans should be spending our time preparing for the now-unavoidable climate apocalypse ahead. As far as Gibbs and Moore are concerned, pushing renewables at this stage is little more than stylin’ out Covid face masks.
And, yes, recognized leaders of the environmental movement – Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Sierra Club – even if not personally cashing in, have, by partnering with venture capitalists (like Goldman Sachs), corporates and other oil-associated companies, put the “problem” into the hands of private interests and reduced the role of public policymaking. As far as the filmmaking pair are concerned, putting the problem into the controlling hands of capitalists is exactly the wrong thing to do because their interest is growth and profit, not public interest, or, it seems, the fate of the human race. With the global population expanding, almost out of control, with a projected 11.7 billion people by 2100. Prodded by Gibbs, Penn State, anthropologist, Nina Jablonsky, tells us that population growth “continues to be not the elephant, but the herd of elephants in the room.”
Planet begins by reminding the viewer that we’ve had plenty of warning about disastrous climate upheaval. Gibbs inserts a clip from the 1958 Frank Capra movie, The Unchained Goddess, which graphically warns Americans of flooding that will greatly reduce the land mass. It’s not so wonderful a life anymore. Mother Nature standing behind us on a wintry snow-driven bridge telling us to Jump, after giving us a vision of how much Earth would have been better off if we’d never existed.
It’s clear that Planet is a deeply personal film, and Gibbs begins by laying down some street cred. Observing, as a child, some bulldozers taking down woods near his home, Gibbs lets us know he put sand in one of their gas tanks. More contrite, perhaps, he wonders, “Why are we still addicted to fossil fuels?” And he follows the Green movement to understand and to participate in the Pushback. There’s movement forward. 2008 Obama. A stimulus bill with billions for renewable energy development. (Hope, Change). Al Gore’s brought in for some inconvenient rah-rah. End Coal rah-rah. The New Green Economy rah-rah. Bill McKibben. 350.org. Sierra. The Chevy Volt. Rah-rah-rah. Give me a G. Give me an R. Give me an E. Give me an E. Give me an N. GREEN!
But then Gibbs’s anxiety creeps in (the Moore Uncanny with music) and suddenly he’s interviewing well-meaning ‘folk’ giving us the ta-dah! on the Chevy Volt, an electric car that will lead us into the future, no more mean Mr. Carbon. But how are they recharged? They’re plugged into the coal-powered grid, just like your toaster. And you can almost hear the bagpipe crumple into a bummed out wheeze. On to solar arrays. More despondent bagpipes. A ‘folk’ person tells us the football field sized array before us generates enough electricity to power an underwhelming “10 homes” per annum. Getting worked up, Gibbs reminds us that renewables are intermittent and that we can’t count on sun and wind in most places, and we need to have storage, and storage means dependency. In short, there are “profound limitations of solar and wind, rarely discussed in the media.”
Suddenly, we’re being sold a bill of goods by the snakes of Oil and mining; we’re Koch suckers, who believe we can frack (XL) and mine our way to private Paradise. The manufacture of solar panels and other materials that are not renewable replacements. Gibbs gives us a list of the elements unearthed in name of sustainability and renewableness. We are daunted: silicon, graphite, rare earths, coal, steel, nickel. sulphur hexaflouride, tin, gallium, cadmium, lead, ethylene vinyl acetate, neodymium, dyprosium, indium, ammonium fluoride, molybdenum, sodium hydroxide, petroleum. Sweet Jesus!
“It was becoming clear,” he tells us, “that what we are calling green renewable energy and industrial civilization are one and the same. Desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life. Desperate measures, rather than face the reality that humans are experiencing the planet’s limits all at once.” And he blames the direction that Greenies are now heading in on sell-outs in the ranks and co-optations by the Cappies. Bill McKibben gets enveloped in extra insinuating mood music because he once championed biomass energy and is caught on camera saying, “Woodchips is the future of energy…It must happen everywhere!” Though McKibben has since recanted, Gibbs is all bongos because McKibben’s enthusiasm got the Koch brothers involved. They own Georgia-Pacific, and “are now the largest recipient of green energy biomass subsidies in the United States.” Lawd, almighty!
Gibbs saves some of his best speed bag work for the face of self-appointed Environmental Savior, Al Gore. The Could-Have-Been-President-Had-He-Fought-A-Little-Harder is taken to task for selling his Current TV news company to Al Jazeera, for “that government is nothing but an oil producer,” and Gore picked up the tidy sum of $100m (pre-tax), and he has crowed about how “proud of the transaction” he was. Later Night show hosts lay into his hypocrisy. He doesn’t care.
Gore once claimed to have “created” the Internet because he was part of the Congressional committee that extended funding for ARPANET (the internet’s precursor), which is like tossing some coins into busker Tracey Chapman’s hat and taking credit for her later success. Later, two internet pioneers, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, trying to smooth things over said, Gore “helped create the climate,” which is when Gore got cluey and created the Environmental Movement, in his own mind. Look at the obese beaver get called out by Richard Branson.
Again, Planet of the Humans is a tone poem that begins where astronaut Taylor’s lamentations leave off. Gibbs consults anthropologists and psychologists to explain the mental limitations preventing us from getting it. “What differentiates people from all other forms of life is that we’re not only here, but we know that we’re here. If you know that you’re here, then you recognize, even dimly that you’ll not be here some day,” Sheldon Solomon, social psychologist at Skidmore College tells us. “And on top of that, we don’t like that we’re animals. So we don’t like that we’re going to die someday. We don’t like that you can walk outside and get hit by a fucking meteor.” Like the fuel-producing dinosaurs did. Or Climate Change for us. What a fucking feedback loop.
Gibbs closes the film with an appeal, or closing argument, of sorts to viewers, and it’s probably best to let it speak for itself:
There is a way out of this. We humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that human presence is already far beyond sustainability. And all that that implies. We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth. They are not our friends. Less must be the new more. And instead of climate change we must at long last accept that it is not the carbon dioxide molecule that’s destroying the planet — it’s us….
This is the nub: We are looking for scapegoats instead of acting radically to save ourselves from extinction. Far from being outliers with their view, the New Yorker’s Jonathan Franzen asks the very same questions the film queries and responds: “What If We Stopped Pretending?”
Apparently as anticipated, criticism from fellow Greenies came fast and furious. Though, if you were inclined, you could have pointed out that Moore/Gibbs films have been for years more psychodrama in their approach than documentarian in, say, the mode of Ken Burns; suddenly, fellow environmentalists were complaining vociferously about the accuracy of Moore’s films. Nobody has been more reactive, so far, than Bill McKibben. It’s clear he feels personally bushwhacked. In a Rolling Stone piece, “‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal,” he bitterly denounces the film’s ethos and damage it is said to have done to the Movement, and avers that it was not only made “in bad faith,” but “dishonorably.” Ouch.
“Basically, Moore and his colleagues have made a film attacking renewable energy as a sham and arguing that the environmental movement is just a tool of corporations trying to make money off green energy,” says McKibben, and continues, “The film’s attacks on renewable energy are antique, dating from a decade ago, when a solar panel cost 10 times what it does today; engineers have since done their job, making renewable energy the cheapest way to generate power on our planet.” It short, the science cited in the film is bad, he says. Gibbs wants to raise consciousness, says McKibben, “But that’s precisely what’s undercut when people operate as Moore has with his film. The entirely predictable effect is to build cynicism, indeed a kind of nihilism. It’s to drive down turnout — not just in elections, but in citizenship generally.”
McKibben also defends his previous championing of biomass energy, saying, “I thought it was a good idea [at the time],” but, he goes on, “And as that science emerged, I changed my mind, becoming an outspoken opponent of biomass. (Something else happened too: the efficiency of solar and wind power soared, meaning there was ever less need to burn anything.)” So, McKibben may justifiably feel as if he’s been called to task for a view he no longer holds. But he’s most irate about the insinuation that he’s a “sell out.” McKibben feels the need to spend much space in the Rolling Stone piece defending his record of achievement over the years. And this may be entirely unfair to his activism.
However, McKibben may be off when he says little science is at play in Planet of the Humans. While it’s true that it relies heavily on anthropological and psychological considerations (because that’s really the concern of the film), Moore and Gibbs do cite a relevant study by Richard York, a much-lauded professor of environmental studies at Oregon State University, who published a peer-reviewed article in Nature magazine, “Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” His answer is No, not really. Other pieces there suggest similar findings, such as York’s more recent article, co-written with Shannon Elizabeth Bell, “Energy transitions or additions?: Why a transition from fossil fuels requires more than the growth of renewable energy” and the Patrick Trent Greiner (et alia) piece, “Snakes in The Greenhouse: Does increased natural gas use reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal consumption?” They say, No, not really.
In a private communique to me, York clarifies how his work was used in the film, “My research that Gibbs draws on found that in recent decades, nations that have added more non-fossil energy sources don’t typically reduce their fossil fuel use substantially (controlling for economic growth etc.) relative to nations that don’t add a lot of non-fossil energy. Thus, it’s not a simple case where there is a fixed energy demand so that adding renewables necessarily pushes out fossil energy, but rather adding energy sources is typically associated with rising energy consumption.” So, again Gibbs and Moore, if somewhat inarticulately, are drawing attention to renewables a s an expansion of energy options without a significant drop in the use of fossil fuels. “I find the movie frustrating,” writes York, “because I don’t think they do a good job of articulating a vision for action.”
Even a recent Guardian article meant to defend McKibben and the environmental movement against the slights of Planet accidently, it seems, underlined Gibbs’s point. Oliver Milman links to a study touting the extraordinary increase of efficiency in renewable technology designs – a study that brags, “Decarbonization of electric grids around the world by an average of about 30% will result in approximately 17% lower battery manufacturing emissions by 2030.” This, to Gibbs and Moore, is merely improvement (and only a best guesstimate at that) and insufficient for the long haul. Milman writes, “Scientists say the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 to head off disastrous global heating, which would likely spur worsening storms, heatwaves, sea level rise and societal unrest.” By 2050. That’s exactly why Moore and Gibbs seem to be throwing in the towel. That’s not going to happen.
Moore and Gibbs have put together a sober and quiet response to the reactions of fellow environmentalist against Planet of the Humans. (You could argue that the 17 minute discussion is better than their film.) Once done with watching Planet and listening to rebuttals and getting dismayed, you may want to pull an Edward G. and have a lounge-down with a bev or bone and remember how much you love Being and Nature by watching the Qatsi Trilogy at Documentary Heaven. You could start with Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance. A Palate cleansing after a hard-to-swallow reality check.
Or you could go the whole Earth Abides route, and prefer to see it the late George Carlin’s way. Cynical, but realistic, for a species that just doesn’t seem to give a shit about most things for very long. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot puts it. Of course, Carlin’s Way is unavailable to anyone with a family.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
– William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much With Us”
To Hell with the MIddle Class!
Oh, wait. They’re already there. At least that’s what David Roediger argues in his new book The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History. There is no there there worth saving. Fuck it.
What is it even? One minute it’s this, another minute it’s that. Did you ever notice, all couched up on the sofa, watching Titanic that there’s all kinds of talk of the upper classes in the upper berths and the lower classes in the lower earths, blueblood English atop and Derry brogues below, but there’s no sign or mention of the middle class. It’s like there isn’t one on the ship. Unless it was supposed to be hungry artist Leo and slumming romancer Kate coming and coming together, all compromised midship.
Or, maybe the middle class is, like, Dylan sitting at home watching the movie, inspired to write a song about it, that doesn’t mention the 1% or the 99% or any percent of class at all. Fuck, he doesn’t even mention the iceberg. Or maybe the middle class is the viewer, the disappearing act between, a kind of choral commentator on the real action, a buffer between the Haves and Nots, sinking in the Corinthian leather sofa bought on credit at a 22% interest rate, while some generic ship-of-state sinks into the nameless sea.
Roediger has a go at the whole lot. He unpacks history to interrogate the baggage carried. He brings in pollsters and shysters and the Bushes and Clintons and Obamas to make sense of how the term ‘middle class’ is used to con people into voting. He consults surveys, the Fortune in men’s eyes as they view their post-war future lifestyles. He talks about old-timey working class types, the butler and milkmaid and the milkman who ran off with your mother (haben sie liebfraumilch?). He gives us Marx snarks, amorphous masses and shape-shifting shibboleths, anodynes and literary anecdotes, Trump’s deplorables and other basket cases, and hints at the revolution ahead when we let the middle class go fall, fell, fallen. Fuck it, let’s face reality together.
Roediger is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has a long history of critical thinking and compelling articulation about race and class politics in America. His previous studies include Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All and The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. What makes Black and White is not so black and white. The Sinking Middle Class is an Introduction on the language of politics and an Afterword on the White Working Class sandwiched around chapters on the political Uses, Pretenses, Problems and Miseries of the Middle Class. As Roediger writes, “Each is meant to be short enough to read in three or four coffee breaks.”
Roediger’s first consideration in The Sinking Middle Class is to consider the language itself. Where did the term come from? What are some of the assumptions that come with its dissemination? Who’s in charge of its meaning and placement within the social narrative of class history. Roediger writes,
The term itself found little use until the last ninety years and not commonly until the Cold War…The strata we might retrospectively call the middle class of the nineteenth century (farmers, free professionals, and shopkeepers) differed utterly from those of twentieth (clerks, salespeople, employed professionals, and managers).
As we become more and more entwined in electricity and speed of light communications it can be difficult to ‘remember’ the slower, black and white ways of the pre-Internet.
We can intuitively recall a stratiated class structure — poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, and rich, with degrees of leaching into the contiguous class. One knew he belonged to the lower middle class (if he thought about it at all consciously) when he couldn’t afford to send his talented kid to Groton School, but wasn’t struggling too much to put a roof over the family and lay out three squares on the table for the family. But, says Roediger,
Over the last thirty years self-serving, vague, and often empty political rhetoric regarding saving the “middle class” has provided the language for rightward political motion finding its way even into unions. Put forward first by the Democrats, it has debased how we understand social divisions in the United States and sidelined meaningful discussions of justice in both class and racial terms.
Somewhere along the line upper middle class on down got grouped as one body — for political purposes, but it’s a fatuous grouping.
You might see it as a way of forcing bloc-voting; a lazy way of approaching the social. economic and moral issues of the day — by trivializing nuance and difference (even as the same old class exclusions applied). And we use the news to deliver these messages, led to believe the ads are objective and balanced bits of information. Roediger lays into this McLuhan effect. Writes Roediger,
The US writer Waldo Frank [writes] in The Re-Discovery of America that “THE NEWS IS A TOY”—that is, a seemingly wonderful novelty and one immediately requiring replacement by a new wonder…the “news item” is overwhelmingly the sound bite of alleged political news, and that “anodyne” must now be in boldface….
I’m reminded of a scene from Boston Legal where the toyfulness of news, and the media in general, is unpacked in the courtroom.
So news, as anodyne, becomes part of the political packaging, part of the show, to be taken, ultimately, as no more serious than the campaign promises. A surreal onslaught, every four years, on the delicate balance between our ears called consciousness, an ecosystem every bit as precious as rainforest. There are laugh tracks, practiced ponderments, tearful moments of William Hurt layer peelings of imagined empathy. But we persist in believing the news, even when they refuse to tell us what we need to know. Roediger writes,
Many of us desire those electoral news items, desperately wanting to be seen as the first to know them, and count that as being engaged in politics … even radicals follow the example of TV pundits in relying on the most quickly available voting data to construct simplistic definitions of class that have little to do with social relations.
Even radicals, and Roediger’s not being snarky or ironical. Shit happens.
Michael Dukakis getting bushwhacked by Bernard Shaw, the latter asking him what he’d do if his wife, Kitty, was raped by Willie “Furlough” Horton becomes laugh track roast material fit for Comedy Central. One recalls this moment of “live” TV (future generations only get this moment and none of the debate, where Dukakis excelled), and Roediger briefly references the moment, a moment racially charged, a Black man asking what a white man of power would do to a Black man If — an impossible question to answer, and we clapped with gleeful little schadenfreude hands as one of the few promising poli’s careers went down the ‘terlit’ (as Archie Bunker would say) and his wife returned to heavy drinking. Maybe that was the silver lining to the moment: Kitty was spared four years of journos clinking her ice cubes (real or imagined).
This cheapening and potentially toxic blend of shallow politics and Madison Avenue massaging was, says Roediger, turned into an art form by consultant and pollster Stanley Greenberg working the Clinton campaign in 1992. Greenberg helped turn Macomb County into a Middle Class Melting Pot America by the careful gathering of data points and manipulation of their results. Writes Roediger,
Greenberg theorized a middle class roughly interchangeable with an alleged white working class—their votes available for the mining in countless electoral campaigns. In the process, he made a suburban, almost entirely white Michigan county seem to be the key to all “progressive” possibility.
As Macomb goes, so goes the nation, was the meme and theme. Another ad, with toothpaste.
Roediger writes that Greenberg referred to his own “working class” background, starting out a white Jewish family living in an all-Black D.C. neighborhood and then migrating to “middle class” Silver Spring, as some kind of street cred he gave himself for “understanding” these categories more fluently than others. But, notes Roediger,
Sympathizing with Macomb County’s suburban workers was nominally available as a result of his own suburban upbringing, but his capacity for understanding them owed more to academic study and political experience than acknowledged personal affinity.
One could argue that such ‘owing to’ is also a valid critique of Marxist scholars among the hoi polloi: They don’t always live the misery, like Studs Terkel, say; often, the best they can do, over crullers and coffee, is sympathize with the Plight.
Roediger notes that in his book, Politics and Poverty, Greenber offers up to the “migrating lower class” what Roediger calls three “Goldilock” scenarios of movement, choices with limited and pre-assigned values. He clarifies by saying,
They could have remained “indifferent and uninvolved” where politics was concerned; they could have “become power brokers . . . tinkering and bargaining for their share;” or, they could have refused to “tinker” and instead entered a radical “confrontation with history.”
Most people chose middle course, writes Roediger, between what really amounted to “a pair of Manichean choices.”
Woven into the fabric of this “Macomb-over” was the cheery “progressive” rhetoric of Stanley Greenberg’s 1995 book, Middle Class Dreams, a collection of stories of people’s everyday lives. A book about how every half, half lived, who wasn’t rich, and so was placed somewhere in the continuum of Middle Class struggles. These struggles and tales of weal woe were captured in the film, The War Room (1993). “Greenberg’s stories of Macomb County mix personal triumph and national salvation promiscuously.” writes Roediger. But read critically, he goes on, “They illuminate how issues of race, class, and power came to be effaced even by those most claiming credit for discussing them electorally in the neoliberal United States.” Massaged and manipulated. Still, for all his savvy, Greenberg is at a loss to later explain how Trump happened.
Roediger explains how this magical kabuki show helped Republicans later attract “Reagan Democrats” and he points to Pete Hamill’s late-60s article, “The Revolt Of The White Lower Middle Class,” in New York that “portentously” spoke to the rising unaddressed tension “the working class, trade union, white, beleaguered, ignored, presumptively male figure who turned from New Deal loyalties to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.” These said-samers would later graduate to basket case ‘deplorables.’ A more recent article on this topic is offered up by Joan Williams in a Harvard Business Review article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” that Roediger unpacks.
This mishmash of ‘folk’ became the subject of a new “technique” called, familiarly now, focus groups, “gathering … people associated demographically and often interviewing them collectively for an extended period, an expensive practice that had previously been used more by Republicans (indeed, the Focus group technique became the Hero of the 1996 Russian election when American consultants — and the Clinton administration — were rushed in to rescue Yeltsin’s campaign: at least, that’s what we were told.). But says Roediger, this snapshot of Macomb County, as described by Clinton and Greenberg, was actually “an exaggeration, a caricature of America.” We’ve been caricatures ever since. He adds, “Nothing in the setup of the research and little in MCD reflected the integrated workplaces and unions in which many in Macomb also existed.” And questions of race were not addressed at all. What racism? The Clinton appeal to assuaging white anxiety backfired, and Hillary, argues Roediger, “paid in 2016 for the race-saturated pro-incarceration rhetoric—Black youth as ‘superpredators’—she and her husband had traded on in appealing to Macomb County’s middle-class dreams in the 1990s.”
Barack Obama also got caught up (willingly) in the lampoon of political demographics. He “deftly liquidated the issue of how a country with such astronomical rates of poverty could be almost all middle class. He defined the middle class as “not only folks who are currently [in] the middle class, but also people who aspire to be in the middle class.” Aspire to be. Hope and Change. Bit this begins to get us into Nora Zeale Hurston country. She once explained how ‘folks’ came to be possessed by the sympathetic power of voodoo: If you want to understand voodoo: believe. It really is like the ol’ tush-grabbing Bush once said of Reaganomics — voodoo, and the Press is there to church us. It’s a plutocracy, where the 1% witch doctor gets to stick it to the 99% Middle Class for fun and exercise of power.
Sanders and Clinton weren’t much better than Obama and Romney, Roediger says, in determining what constitutes Middle Class, “ballparking “below $250,000” annual family income as the benchmark of middle-class membership, though limiting its use to details of tax policy.” Ironically, it seems, then, that by the time You-Know-Who became president, quite a few million people were just plain tired of the political-demographic bullshit. He writes,
Trump presented himself as a modern political leader uniquely unmoved by pretending affinity with the middle class. He bragged repeatedly of his 1 percent status. Overemphasizing his self-made success and deemphasizing his debts, he courted being seen as filthy rich.
He didn’t pretend to be ‘one of us’ and it greatly helped his cause.
Later, Roediger contrasts such focus groups with surveys taken by Fortune magazine before, during and after WWII. Of special interest to him is Fortune’s 1942 survey that asks a series of class-bound questions, including identification and expectations. He takes issue with “Fortune’s assertion that a startling four-fifths of a nation barely off the skids claimed to be middle class has meant its survey is still cited even today” and “It exulted that the nation remained impervious to the formation of ;any self-conscious proletariat such as a Marxist would wish for.’” Roediger notes, however, Fortune’s playfulness in suggesting that “one American in four favored socialism, with another 35 percent reporting having ‘an open mind’ on the issue.” It’s an interesting snapshot of our culture, and well worth a perusal. Here.
But for all his linguistic grappling with the definition, trends and usefulness of the term ‘Middle Class,’ and American Exceptionalism (to which it’s linked), Roediger saves his best for demolishing its presumed allure. It’s a miserable place to be. He lets Marx throw a haymaker, warming up with the reminder that
The precise term “American exceptionalism” came much later and amidst rich irony. One recent account has it originating from Stalin, who in 1929 was searching for a name for a heresy within the world Communist movement he dominated.
But, actually, says Roediger, Marx tells us that the “middle classes” will propogate and that they exist to consume “the surplus bounty produced in the factories by workers,” leading to a Keeping Up with the Joneses, financed by credit debt, leading to a life of “falling and fear of falling,” such as that described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Fear of Falling. Today’s debt slaves. The New Middle Class.
Misery is the picture Roediger paints. He brings in literary figures to illustrate, such as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the law clerk who “prefers not to” do anymore work, who fades in toiling, losing himself, wasting away. (Not mentioned by Roediger, but apropos, is Melville’s own misery as he toiled as a clerk to support his writing and saw his time and energy and talent waste away. This is something Tillie Olsen picks up on in “Ways of Being Silent,” her fine essay in Harper’s October 1965 issue, almost suggesting Moby Dick was an obsession with writing itself.). Roediger emphasizes that “If we see the middle class as a plight as well as a perch, we can understand something of why many workers see themselves simultaneously as middle class, working class, and living impossible lives.”
He sees misery in the cube, “the tomb where a majority of office workers spend much of their lives,” as detailed in Nikil Saval’s Cubed. Willy Loman and The Death of A Salesman are brought in to express the tragedy of a culture consumed with buying and selling, in a transactional existence, an “embourgeoisement” nobody can fathom. “Loman’s fall and death—a suicide after a series of failed attempts—come not at once but over a lifetime of misery,” Roediger tells us. He writes, “Much of the misery of the middle class fits well within narratives of sudden descent in material terms,” and one recalls how the just before the Towers fell into freefall their middles sagged, and suddenly even images of 9/11 takes on the almost taunting, half-baked truths of memes.
The Sinking Middle Class offers few specific solutions (typical of the Left these days), but it is a good read that points to the vacuity of our central premises regarding what it means to be American and, presumably, Middle Class — at least until the next Credit Report comes rolling with the news of our demise, or, much to our delighted surprise, an opportunity to have our credit limit raised. The book was written before the Covid-19 pandemic began, and it would be interesting to know what Roediger’s response would be to its near certain revolutionary impact on American Exceptionalism.
Corona may be a blessing in disguise, bringing about an end to commerce as usual, a freefall of a class designation not worth saving, and a revolution nobody can do anything about in an America beset with so many vectors of turmoil that starting over may be the only viable answer.
With any luck, a solar flare will knock out our grids, so that we can get back to the business of being human, face-to-face.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, 1848
A few weeks ago New Yorker magazine published a cartoon titled “Glass Ceiling,” which depicted a father and his little daughter looking out the window of an office high up in a skyscraper. The caption read, “Someday, all of this glass ceiling will be yours.” You chuckle, because it’s funny; but then you go ahead and think about it. Then your smirk drops, and you’re thinking, “Shit, that’s not funny at all.” And then you feel bushwacked, and caught out because you laughed inappropriately, and think again: glass ceiling.
One thinks of that disturbing question psychiatrists ask during an admissions assessment: “Why should women in glass houses not throw stones?” It’s meant to determine a certain level of abstract reasoning. The middle-age little girl might answer bravely, “Because it might break the glass. We mustn’t do that.” He smiles upon her, hands her a benzo, and assigns her to the Open Ward; she won’t run. But if Daddy really loved his little girl, when he points out the glass ceiling to her, he’d hand her a brick and say, “Smash that shit.” Concrete reasoning. She’d get the Closed Ward and chlozapine. But, one day, that brick might get her to the White House. (As long as the MSM doesn’t fink on her previous history of mental illness.)
We wait, NOW, with bated breath as current Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, the surprise front runner and back rubber, paces and stays up at night wondering which woman to use as a running mate to guarantee a fall victory against the Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump. He wouldn’t win any other way. He needs the women’s bloc to bring their enormous electoral power to the polls just long enough to chase Trump from office and back to the Reality TV toon world he escaped from — abetted by the basket-case deplorables we thought we left behind in the 70s. And it’s not like folks are coming from miles around to pick Joe’s progressive brains for any other reason. Hmph.
Almost 100 years after the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by a male Congress on August 18, 1920, ‘gifting’ women the right to vote, a number of them are waiting around anxiously, like pageant princesses, for the phone to ring and hear corny Joe pop the question: “Will you be my running mate? You lyin’ dog-faced pony soldier?” The girls are anxious; who will it be? Will it be Tulsi? How about Amy? Might Kammy get the nod? Or will it be Sally, Stacey, Sheeny, or Maggie? What if Lizzy, for the good of the potty, throws away her principles and endorses Ol’ Joe in exchange for the nod? An arsenic and old lace cup of tea away from the presidency. But what if she dies first of old age? Whoa, more glass ceilings.
Such are the images and white noise that invade the mind as I make my way through Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol Dubois. Released during Women’s History Month, the book not only celebrates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but also details the 75 year struggle leading up to the Statute of Liberty. It’s a book about enormous multigenerational courage and the triumph of common sense, from surviving physical domestic abuse to waking men up to their own folly: women, too, are humans, people, citizens, and not just chattel. It’s a book chock full of heroines (and heroes too), and laden with seemingly intractable complexities and obstacles to overcome: race, class, religion, anthropology, politics — and just plain evil.
Dubois describes two waves of women — the fin de siecle pioneers and the Next Generation militants — who through sheer determination and personal sacrifice wear down the lip servants of Liberty to take hold of what was theirs to begin with: autonomous selfhood. The battle begins, in 1848, in upper state New York, when a series of parlor discussions about abolition turns into one of women’s issues and “the long-accumulating discontent” of the second sex, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, evolves into a passionate statement of intended emancipation known as the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentments. Women were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more.
It was, writes Dubois, — a kind of in-your-face revelation of male hypocrisy:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Sound familiar? Same same, but now with “women” added. New and improved product. Very effective. (Although one guy is said to have gawped out, “Hey, that’s plagiarism.”) But like every “new” product it took awhile to soak in. Some say, 100 years later, it still hasn’t soaked in. Maybe we need a new washing machine.
With the parlor successes of Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reached out to leaders of communities more far flung, to the West and the pioneer states, as well as overseas. But it should be noted that her parlor talks and travelling required money, which brings to the fore the fact that she was well-off, and that, at first, suffrage in the East, was seen as an elitist goal; poor and Black women were too busy or tired to talk and travel. As Dubois writes of Stanton,
When insults and male arrogance became too much to bear, which happened frequently, her self-confidence would turn to arrogance. She would default to a haughty—and infuriating—elitism….
Still, Stanton spread the gospel of emancipation that would free poor women too (even if they didn’t know it at the time).
In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (where women were excluded from participating, although they watched men debate slavery from the gallery), Stanton met Lucretia Mott. the woman who would become her mentor. Mott, a Quaker abolitionist from Massachusetts, was a woman Dubois decribes as “emancipated from all faith in man-made creeds, from all fear of his denunciations.” Fearless women is what the movement needed, and there was no shortage of them back in the day, and they had no desire to be mere copies of men in their political deeds and future votes — but leaders of thought. “It was under [Mott’s] tutelage,” writes Dubois, “that..Stanton grew into a great women’s rights thinker.”
Back home,in Worcester, Mass., another convention served to align the values of abolitionists and the suffragettes. It was attended by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Stephen Foster. Dubois describes the vibe:
“The cause we have met to advocate…bids us remember the two millions of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women,” the convention resolved, “and omit no effort to raise [them] to a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.”
This fierce resolution, Dubois suggests, was in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. a dickheaded law that allowed Southerners to come to Northern states to repo escaped slaves. But sometimes freemen got taken. Think: 12 Years A Slave.
But probably the most well-known suffrage leader, and future coin head, was Susan B. Anthony, another Quaker from Massachusetts. She was a stout leader of the temperance movement and a committed abolitionist. She and Stanton formed the New York Women’s State Temperance Society in 1852. Ten years before the Civil War, writes Dunois, “the abolition of slavery and temperance were the two issues most riling American society, shaking up political parties, and—of particular
importance—igniting women’s energies.”
Dubois mentions other early suffragettes, such as Lucy Stone, from Mass., the first American woman to earn a college degree, and Amelia Bloomer, from Seneca Falls, who edited the magazine The Lily, for which Stanton wrote regularly. Bloomer is most remembered for the ‘feminist’ fashion statement she introduced, which like the Turkish pantaloon was a loose-fitting garment that suffragettes adopted as a symbol and called a “freedom dress.” It caused a sensation probably akin to the recent Burqua fashion craze introduced by rich car-driving Saudi women. (However, suffrage in the Kingdom is unnecessary, onnacounta they don’t really have any elections.)
One of the most challenging aspects of Suffrage is Dubois’s weaving and unwinding of the myriad threads of political and social complexity. For instance, most suffragettes were abolitionists who worked hard to see slavery ended; but other suffragettes weren’t particularly bothered by it. Most contemporary Americans are unaware that a majority of Northerners were indifferent to the plight of slaves. On January1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, which some claim the North was losing, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “using his presidential powers to declare all slaves in rebel territory forever free.”
As Dubois explains though,
The resentment of many white northerners of the proclamation, which seemed to them to mean only that they would pay the ultimate price to end slavery, about which they were concerned little, and free the slaves, about whom they cared even less, boiled over.
Riots broke out in New York and many Blacks were killed, when America’s first draft was announced — one in which the rich conscripts could buy their way out of, while working class workers could lose their jobs processing (ironically) sugar and cotton from the South.
Dubois points out some very serious flaws in the legacy of the Emancipation. For one thing, she writes, “Like all executive orders, it could be undone by the next president.” But more stunning, Dubois points out that “Right before his death, Lincoln had laid out a plan for a postwar reconstruction that would readmit seceding states but not enfranchise African Americans.” Susan B. Anthony was appalled and said of his plan at a memorial service shortly after his assasination,
My soul was sad and sick at what seemed his settled purpose—to consign the ex-slaves back to the tender mercies of the disappointed, desperate, sullen, revengeful ex-lords of the lash.
For Lincoln, the Civil War might have been so politically costly that he felt he needed to be conciliatory. For suffragettes, it ended up alienating them from the abolitionist fight.
Another piggy back ride that proved costly for the suffragettes was their hopping on the back of the Temperance Movement in the hopes of driving women together to form one bloc of action that would lead to suffrage for all. Frances Willard, a friend of Anthony’s led the charge through the Women’s College Temperance Union. Writes Dunois, “Drink, she believed, was a new form of enslavement that she was called upon to fight, just as her abolitionist parents had fought chattel slavery.” But the strategy was dubious for one obvious reason — few men to be affected — not just the drunks and louts, who tippled and terrorized families at home — but powerful gentlemen who enjoyed a good glass in a social milieu of politics and sports, wanted to stop drinking. There would be hell to pay.
As we’ve seen over time, a lot of white powerful men in America like drinking, but may like the notion of enslavement even more — take modern debt enslavement and the control it implies over lives. Getting women from various socio-economic-religio backgrounds, with various agendas, organized and mobilized around the concept of universal suffrage — and seeing it as the political key that unlocked all other doors — was a formidable task. A lot of women just didn’t see it that way. For instance, suffragists had difficulty convincing Democratic women who, writes Dubois, “regarded woman suffrage as a wealthy woman’s hobby.” While abolition and temperance alliances severely hampered suffrage for decades, once working class women saw what was in it for them, they embraced the movement.
One of the great moral and political boosts for suffrage was the fact that many states west of the Mississippi –the Go West pioneer states — in the end, some 12 states where women could vote. These acted as a stable reference point and a factual rebuff to those men — and women — back East who proclaimed suffrage could neither be done nor was wanted. Maud Young, a speaker at the National Women’s Party (NWP), reminded her audience that
Four years ago, women voted in six States—today in twelve.…[They] constitute nearly one-fourth of the electoral college, and [cast] more than one-third of the votes necessary to elect a President.” She finished with a ringing call: “The women’s votes may determine the Presidency of the United States.”
And they would, too, if they ever got together as one.
In the 20th century, a second generation of suffragettes, the New Woman, pushed through the usual obstacles, plus the muddle of World War I (where the work women did in armaments factories, in support of soldiers overseas, greatly helped their cause), and strove on through a distracting pandemic known as the Spanish Flu, which took perhaps 50 million lives, to eventually successfully pressure president Woodrow Wilson in backing legislation for the 19th Amendment.
Among the stars of the show in this more active era cited by Dubois were Ellis Meredith, a novelist and journalist who wrote a column for the Rocky Mountain News called A Woman’s World; Carrie Chapman Catt, who played a major role in the international suffrage movement; Anna Howard Shaw, a physician and ordained minister; Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, who helped build a bridge between labor and suffrage; Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the first female civil engineer in America; Milholland Boissevain, “the supreme New Woman, [who] was renowned for her determination and fearlessness.”
But Alice Stokes Paul, was the firebrand the movement needed to bring it all home. In 1913, She worked closely with Blatch and Carrie Chapman Catt, as they organized a major suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Paul had witnessed first and the tactics employed by British women in their own fight for suffrage (watch Suffragette here). Writes Dubois, “Paul had learned from the British suffragettes to deploy public demonstrations for maximum popular attention and to hold the political party that was in power responsible for inaction on women’s enfranchisement.” But it could get violent.
In August 1917, DC was covered with picketers demanding the right to vote for women. Paul, and others, decided to get themselves arrested to make a splashier point in the news. Shortly after Alexander Kerensky, who led the Russian provisional government after the 1917 revolution, announced that Russia would be “enfranchise its women,” writes Dubois, “Suffragists wanted to underline the irony of the president’s resistance to women’s enfranchisement.” Their banners ‘announced’ to the people’s revolutionaries that America was not democratic. The Wilson administration was not happy. “A line had been crossed,” writes Dubois. “Peaceful picketing now began to look like treason.” The picketers couldn’t be arrested under the new Espionage Act law, but were arrested for obstruction of traffic and disturbing the peace, tried and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Paul continued to push for her rights,and those of the others, while in prison. Recalling the tactics of British militant suffragettes, Paul and the others set up a hunger strike, which gained them lots of press, but at a significant cost to Paul. Dubois writes,
Paul would be the first suffrage activist in the United States subjected to forced feeding… This was another first: the first documented use of psychiatric diagnosis and confinement as a deliberate form of political repression in the United States, perhaps worldwide.
More recently, one recalls how we wrung our hands in anguish when we discovered that ‘gloves-off’ Enhanced Interrogation Techniques against Gitmo ‘terrorists’ sometimes involved force-feeding (and remember the Zero Dark Thirty scene?), but we were doing it to our own women almost 100 years earlier.
Dubois sums up, “When on August 26, 1920, the secretary of state certified that ratification was completed, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution.” Women now had the right to vote and the power to influence legislation with it. But Dubois seems almost wistful in the end, as she notes disappointment in the fact that women never came together afterward to form the kind of formidable voting bloc that could have significantly changed politics in America. Indeed, when all was said and accomplished, newspapers across the country called into question the success of suffrage. Dubois refuses to deny or qualify one fact: “Even so, [as hard as suffragettes had worked] the first election brought out approximately one-third of eligible women voters, about half the rate of men.”
Dubois closes with a few measuring stick paragraphs on how far women have come since 1920 in developing an elusive agenda and bloc of electoral power. She singles out Betty Friedan for her book, The Feminine Mystique,and its influence on getting women to free themselves from a modern day slave mentality. She says the book was received “hostilely by women.” In her Epilogue, she quotes a joke she overheard between two men talking after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed — some guy says to the other: “”It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies.” Maybe, but perhaps they should read Gloria Steinem’s account of her undercover days serving Hugh Hefner, “A Bunny’s Tale.”
Sexual harassment (Epstein, Weinstein), domestic abuse, fracturing along all the usual lines — class, race, religion, partisan politics — the struggle forward and upward continues, just as it started out 100 years ago –call it the Myth of Sisterphus. About the only thing men and women don’t fight over much any more is drinking: Everybody loves to get shitfaced on the weekend, EOE.
The only question that remains is the age-old one that goes back to Adam: who owns a woman’s body. We’ve been wondering that since Eve was just a rib in Adam’s eye. But I don’t really want to know the answer. I’m not sure I like the implications.