They call it their “Self-Improvement” issue, and while flying today from Richmond to Chicago, I read three especially good articles about the sorry state of our nation, each one a pretty good substitute for the sort of news and editorials that we’re no longer getting. Here are teasers from each one:
From “Revolt of the Elites” (unsigned) in The Intellectual Situation (p. 15):
“Who…is guility of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society.”
From “Caucasian Nation” by Marco Roth in Politics (p. 14):
“The robust case for dominating other people sounds awful to most American ears today. So the contemporary idea of ethnocracy relies instead on an opposite rhetoric of victimization. The simple-minded mantra we’re taught in grade school goes like this: blacks good because oppressed, whites bad because oppressors. So if whites suddenly became oppressed, even while remaining the majority, they would magically become good again. Many Americans are now being taught to think this way.”
From “The Two Cultures of Life” by Kristin Dombek in Essays (p. 105):
“When Scott Roeder murdered George Tiller [the abortion doctor in Wichita], the only US citizen on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list was Daniel Andreas San Diego, who was allegedly involved in the 2003 bombings of three Bay Area office buildings belonging to the Chiron and Shaklee Corporations, customers of the animal testing lab Huntington Life Sciences. Huntington employees have been caught on tape doing things like punching puppies and dissecting monkeys alive. According to the FBI’s website, San Diego has “psychopathic” tattoos of burning hills and collapsing buildings. He has “ties to animal rights extremist groups” and is “known to follow a vegan diet, eating no meat or food containing animal products.” No one was hurt in the Bay Area bombings — they caused only property damage — and San Diego is only a suspect; nevertheless, he is still, at this writing, at the top of the FBI’s list.” [11/24/10]
Two consecutive items from Harper’s Index (Harper Magazine, December 2010):
Percentage of Americans who believe that Stephen King wrote Moby-Dick: 4
Number of U.S. states in which it is legal to own a tiger without a license: 9
Early last August, the editor of Seminary Coop’s The Front Table (an online arm of what may be the best academic bookstore in the U.S., located on the University of Chicago campus) emailed me and asked for a contribution to their series “What I’m Reading” in conjunction with the publication of my new book. I promptly sent him the following, which, for reasons that escape me, they never published. — J.R.
What I’m Reading: Jonathan Rosenbaum
Boy in Darkness and Other Stories by Mervyn Peake. The title novella in this recent, posthumous collection, perhaps the scariest fantasy I’ve ever read, was first encountered by me in my teens, on its first publication, in a 1956 Ballantine paperback called Sometime, Never, where it was published alongside stories by two other Englishmen, William Golding and John Wyndham. I find it every bit as dreamlike and as chilling now as it was then. And it inspired me to finally start reading
The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. This fantasy epic trilogy in slow-motion, most of it set in a castle that appears to be roughly the size of Manhattan, among characters obsessed with their duties and rituals, has beautifully vivid and magically precise prose, and it’s attractively packaged with two introductions (by Quentin Crisp and Anthony Burgess) and 140 pages of critical assessments. At this point I’m only on page 118 of Titus Groan, the first novel, but I’m looking forward to many more happy hours with this 1173-page compendium.
Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses by Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener. One of the two textbooks I’m using in an upcoming course in Film Theory and Film Criticism that I’m teaching for the Art History department at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall. Although it’s clearly designed as a textbook, this is more academic than I’d like it to be, and I fundamentally agree with Ian Christie that there’s something fundamentally perverse about American academics designating Film Theory as a worthy object of study in its own right rather than as an expedient tool for studying particular films. But it seems intelligent, fairly comprehensive, and extremely up to date, which is why I’m using it.
Defining Moments in Movies: The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events That Made Movie Magic, edited by Chris Fujiwara. Despite the very hokey title, this lavishly illustrated 800-page collection, with short entries on about 1000 films by a team of international critics, myself included (who contributed 40 items), is the most comprehensive and sophisticated popular guide to contemporary cinephilia that I know, which is why I’m using it as a required textbook for both of my upcoming courses, to be used interactively by all my students. (I’ll be asking each of them to select at least one film and text from the book to write about). It combines playfulness with seriousness in an exemplary manner, and I’m hoping it will be especially inviting to students who prefer reading short chunks of text online if they read anything at all. I also consider this volume a good example of the kind of nonlinear film criticism that can also be found nowadays in the best DVD extras, such as those by Yuri Tsivian on Bauer, Eisenstein, and Vertov.
Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, edited by David L. Ulin. Following a tip from my old NYU classmate Marc Haefele, who now lives in Los Angeles, this is a very inviting 880-page collection that I expect to spend many happy hours with after I land in Virginia next week. It appears to be quite comprehensive, generically as well as chronologically, incorporating everyone from Mencken and Eco to Faulkner and West to Ross Macdonald and Charles Willeford to Charles Mingus and Art Pepper to Randall Jarrell and Gary Snyder to Didion and Vollmann. Which leads me, finally, to
Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollman Reader, edited by Larry McCaffery and Michael Hemmingson. As with Peake, I’m still just getting my feet wet when it comes to the highly prolific, versatile, and eclectic Vollmann — a writer first introduced to me by filmmaker Pedro Costa, who told me about Poor People a couple of years ago. The early passage in that book about Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men immediately whetted my appetite for more, and I’ve been profitably dipping into many different parts of this collection more recently. I was especially pleased to discover, incidentally, on the 1990 “List of ‘Contemporary’ Books Most Admired by Vollmann”, “the first two books of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast triliogy”.
This piece by Gary Younge appeared a little over a week ago but is still relevant. Here are two particularly salient passages:
It is not unrealistic to believe that a country as wealthy as the US should be able to provide healthcare for all, a dignified life for its elderly, an infant mortality rate better than Cuba’s, a life expectancy higher than Bosnia’s, a foreign policy that does not hinge on military aggression, and an economy where fewer than one in seven live in poverty. What is unrealistic is to believe that any of those things can be achieved, or even seriously tackled, with just a single vote.
Republicans will head to the polls to elect people who will actually cut jobs and support bankers. Democrats may well stay at home because their candidate has not made things better, and in so doing make things worse. Neither disaffection nor rage are electoral strategies. But in the absence of an alternative, frustration has political consequences.
November 3: American voters have spoken, and the message appears to be to leave Tomorrowland for Frontierland while remaining in the same Disney theme park, albeit this time without any tickets.