April 10, 2009

The Saddest Music in the World


Lady Helen Portly-Huntley, the Beer mogul, hopes in the Winnipeg winter of 1933 to gather the atmosphere of the city- the saddest city in the world according to the London Times for four years running- and distill it in a tune. She decides to hold a contest for the saddest music in the world. Of course there is an ulterior motive: Lady Portly Huntley wants to use the festival to sell her beer and undermine American prohibition with an exhibit both of the despair of the great depression and of the salving power of alcohol. Her festival has unexpected consequences. Representing America we have Chester, a producer and his lover, Narcissa: Chester was once the lover of Helen herself. He is from Winnipeg but has escaped Canada for the United States. His father who also loved Helen though he never became her lover represents Canada- and his other son, Roderick, under the name Gavrillo the Great (of which more later) represents Serbia. Just to complicate things further, Roderick's ex wife is Narcissa- a woman with whom he is still deeply in love. This complicated skein of relationships twists and turns itself in and out as the film continues: there is one added complication, Lady Helen has lost her legs (she lost them when the father made a failed operation after she was injured giving aural sex in a car to his son Chester).

This scenario is told with skill. Maddin is a showy film maker- you see his craft. What he tries to do in this film is evoke the world of early Hollywood- so he uses black and white mainly (there are some scenes in technicolour) and tints it to show different effects. So when Lady Helen sinks to her knees to service Chester, the screen goes very very blue. There are some lovely frames, where Maddin makes the optimal use of the fact that early cinema blurred the background of a film- often not having precision through the whole image. His film has a dated and sometimes a speeded up look- but he uses that to make his argument. So a scene where the father in distress smashes up a room becomes more powerful because it is filmed in the way one might see a film of an action by Charlie Chaplin, disjointed and sped up compared to early life. Limiting the image to the screen means that he can focus his lens: so his two actresses- Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rosselini- are often seen in focus which exploits the fact that they have two of the most interesting and beautiful female faces in cinema. One could say the same for the craggy and disappointed figure of the father- David Fox- whose face again lights up the screen. Rather differently, he uses the camera to obscure Roderick (Ross McMillan's) face- the camera cannot see through veils, and when his face is shown it is like a mad scientist or a block of white- the mystery of the lunatic is maintained.

Lunacy is at the centre of this film: the lunacy of World War One started by Gavrillo, a Serbian who shot the Archduke of Austria, the lunacy of the productions of the great movie sets, the lunacy of love which directs humans together and maintains connections for years- lunacy is tragedy but it is also Maddin informs us the very stuff of life. The characters here have their particular madnesses- Narcissa listens to a tapeworm to get advice, Roderick dresses in a huge black veil as a disguise (the picture is of some 1920s villain). Many critics, including Stephanie Zacharek for instance in Salon criticised the picture for not saying enough about the world- getting lost in its own lunatic eccentricity and forgetting propulsion for the sake of poetry. I don't think they are right- the Saddest Music in the world does have a meaning and the meaning- whether Maddin intended it or not- is important and goes beyond the trite statement that no music can ever express the depth of human sadness.

The meaning lies more in two arguments- one about the sincerity of emotion and the other about the sincerity of art- both relate to Maddin's stereotypical American and one might feel encapsulate a critique of one image of the American. The first argument is that in this contest there is one character who feels no sadness- Chester does not feel sad, he merely attempts an impression of sadness. The truth is that his sadness is so artificial that it makes his performances more glitzy than they are glorious. Having never seen sadness, he can impersonate it even bribe impersonaters of it but he finds it hard to create it. Roderick because he feels it more intensely eventually wins the prize. But lets go further- another issue with Chester is that he is repugnant precisely because he has never felt sadness. Never feeling sad means he is a vacuum- he cannot make certain appeals. Narcissa is the ultimate arbiter between the two brothers- her name is a clue to her status in the film with Chester she sees merely herself reflected back, only Roderick can awake her to the individuality of others. Chester is too happy to be human and because he cannot feel and therefore value sadness, cannot feel and therefore value right and wrong. He is a gleeful, brash psychopath- whereas Roderick is a depressive hypochondriac (one gets a feeling that the one symbolizes America, the other Europe.)

There are so many things wrapped into this film- but I think the broadest picture is that link between what I feel, what I can represent and what I have to feel to be a moral person. Chester's problem is that his lack of feeling means he cannot represent sadness, furthermore it means that ultimately he lies outside of the human community- a community which is defined by feeling and reaction- reaction to circumstances and to art like this.

April 08, 2009

Native Reading


Hillary Wyss makes a simple point in her article in Commonplace. She argues that there is a vibrant and neglected culture of reading within Native American communities during the colonial era- especially the years just before the American War of Independence. Her article is frustrating: not because the topic is uninteresting but because she says so little apart from affirming that Native American texts took various forms- from the criminal confession and letter to the fabulous library and pamphlet. There are two things I think though that we can gather even from such a short article which indicate interesting perspectives on early American history.

The first is the way that Indians learnt to read. Wyss gives us two particular roads into reading for a Native American. The first is through a school like that where Samson Occom (a Native American scholar and minister pictured abovfe) was educated set up by the ministry. In the world of Welfare States, we often forget that many of the tasks that now we devolve upon the welfare state were performed in earlier societies by the Church. Whether we like it or not, it remains true that most people's first encounter with Christian culture in the eighteenth or even nineteenth century was through the medium of scripture- this applies just as much in Europe as overseas. The Jesuits in the Catholic church and various Protestants were great educators: they saw education as a means of creating a redeemed person who might at the second coming rise to meet his creator. A biproduct of that process of redemption was education in reading: especially in the Protestant confessions, Christianity as a textual religion like Islam and Judaism demands a certain engagement with texts. Consequently many non-European languages of illiterate peoples were first written down by Europeans attempting to translate the Bible into them, and many of those people were educated in church schools.

Secondly there is the effect of globalisation. Many Native Americans learnt to read by becoming indentured servants for Englishmen who taught them how to read. The English interest in this was far from altruistic- it promoted profit- nor was it universal but Wyass finds that it was there. Its importance is that of course this technology did not remain controlled either by the missionary or by the employer- but became changed in the hands of those who were educated into something new and strange. Writing becomes one of the key means of exchange- whereby the colonised absorb what they desire and reject what they find objectionable in the coloniser's culture. An optimistic view would suggest that the coloniser too was influenced eventually by this cultural exchange- however one need not accept the latter to accept the former. Thinking about colonisation thus from Wyass's work we get three particular perspectives- the first is technological- the English brought writing to the Americas- the second is religious- they taught people writing to convert them and the third is economic, writing here becoming the engine of profit for English merchants and plantation owners.

This matters because it indicates how cultures in a colonising environment merge and change- they are broken down by commercial opportunity and religious imperative. Lastly of course, it is important to note that whatever the purposes that the technology was granted, those purposes were distorted or even destroyed within the minds of the recipients. Granting people a technological gift does not mean they will use it as you choose- Native Americans used writing to connect families and friends, exchange news and absorp views.

April 06, 2009

The Courtly Reich


Power does not change its forms as much as we think. Whether it is a state which controls vast resources and populations or a state which has shrunk to the level of the city or the village, the means of exercising power and its problems are often similar. A state has to use levers to exert force- the image is exact because the order of a single politician has little to no power, it is the way that that is converted into the actions of hundreds, thousands or millions that is the key to his power. The Third Reich in that sense is an interesting example of what a state can do- insane and destructive policies which led to hideous human rights abuses and the holocaust, not to mention the destruction of Germany and much of Europe in the bloodiest war ever seen. Amongst the central issues anyone has to confront when they look at Hitler's regime is how such insanity- and such unstable clowns- came to govern a civilised and educated state for 12 years and become intensely popular, not merely in Germany but also abroad. How did they exert that influence- what kind of levers did they pull?

The answers to that are vast- they swallow things like ancient anti-semitism and modern economic crisis. Amongst the reasons that the Reich was able to exert such power was that its leaders were able to use traditional resources within German society. They wooed and won the Princely and aristocratic classes of the German state- more Princely scions supported the Nazis than any other group save for doctors. The reasons why these people supported the Nazis are dealt with in Christopher Clark's illuminating review of Fabrice d'Almeida's new study of the Nazis and High Society. What he shows is that Hitler and Goring in particular created the image of a court- they surrounded themselves with aristocrats and attempted to attract them (especially after the war) through the acquisition of art and antiques. Hitler was invited to salons as an outsider whose peculiarity and uncouth manners were part of his attraction. As we get into the thirties, the Nazis made it very clear that they were willing to give the traditional elites access- Goring's marriage in 1935 for example was attended by at least 63 Noblemen and women.

The Nazi elite were keen to burnish their cultural credentials as well- both using these to offer access- Ribentrop invited 2000 guests to an Olympic party in 1936 but also creating a gift culture within organs of the Nazi state. So for example the Nazis collected massive amounts of art- especially after the conquest of France in 1940 which they distributed onwards to their friends and allies. Generals and princes received paintings and monetary rewards to buy their silence. What we see in part within the Nazi regime is the manipulation of very old methods to govern the state: governing through display and through patronage and of course through old elites. Officers within the Wehrmaht and the SS were disproportionately from the noble classes- this gave the regime legitimacy in the eyes of conservative Germans as well as creating the image of the Nazi party as guardians of European civilisation against communism.

Courtliness served the cause of Hitler just as demagoguery on the streets of Thuringa helped him. As Chris Clark notes, we have neglected for too long the appeal that Hitler had to German elites, this means that we do not neccessarily appreciate the sources of the power of Hitler's despicable regime: one of those sources was Hitler's popularity with the masses, another was Hitler's popularity with their masters. Art and snobbery burnished the reputation of the Nazi regime within and without and helped serve them in controlling Germany and leading it and Europe into disaster, atrocity and war.

April 05, 2009

Scottish Law: the problem of feudalism

Adam Smith provided one of the classic accounts of the development of human society. He argued that human society proceeded through four stages of development in which law, society and economics all did different things. Most people will recognise this kind of theory as the beggining of another line of thought that culminated one hundred years after Smith was writing with Karl Marx's Kapital. But actually Smith provided one of his fullest accounts of these stages within his Lectures on Jurisprudence (though the Wealth of Nations too is a historical work as much as an economic one) and as Knut Haakonsen has argued, Smith and other enlightened theorists drew mostly upon natural law arguments provided by Pufendorf and Grotius not upon economics.

The point of Smith's arguments was that they occurred at the same time of course as the settlement of the union. Smith lived in a late eighteenth century that was dominated in Scotland by the consequences of the union of 1707 and the failed Stuart rebellion of 1745. After 1745 (when Smith was 22 and David Hume was 33) the British government took action to repress the feudal jurisdictions that had dominated the highlands. Such action was approved of by many members of the Scottish elite- despite the fact that it in seomed to violate some of the terms of the act of union. George Wallace for example heralded the fall of heritable jurisdictions as the demise of 'tyrannical principles' within the law in 1760. Lord Bankton agreed: such reforms placed the Scots upon the same 'foot of liberty and independency with the other people of Britain'. Feudalism was meeting its demise and being replaced by a Britannic equality before the law.

This tied into an argument, expressed by Lord Kames amongst others, that actually Scots and English law derived from the same source- a fusion of Saxon and Norman custom mixed by a series of leglislators from William the Conqueror and David I on. Kames suggested that differences between English and Scottish law 'illustrate each other by their opposition'. Comparative study of their institutions further the notion that Scottish society needed releasing from feudalist law: Sir John Dalrymple argued that 'in the declensions of almost every part of the feudal system the English have gone before us'. What Colin Kidd suggests based on this evidence is that what you have is a sense in the eighteenth century of the reform of Scots law being the same as the anglicisation of Scots law: union therefore being a mechanism whereby Scots commoners were freed from the jurisdiction of Scots nobles. In a sense just as the SNP today argue that allegiance to Europe is a way of escaping the bullying English, so in the 18th Century Scottish lawyers and theorists argued that anglicisation was a way of escaping the bullying authority of local gentry and aristocrats.

There is a further point here: to resume where we started with Adam Smith and David Hume. Part of the strength of their argument and the sense of where it goes must derive from this unique opportunity. 18th Century Scotland was a place where two legal systems existed in the same state- Scots would be familiar with their own law but also had the right to appeal such judgements to the English House of Lords. (This appellate issue is one of the central interesting anomalies within the Union.) As historians we often underrate the affect of context on thinkers- living in a fused state makes comparison and contrast a much more vivid enterprise (there is a reason why histories of Europe have become much more subtle over the last half century). The unique political community that Smith and Hume were part of must have made arguments about the historicity of law and its connection to social structure much more important and vivid not merely as theoretical constructs but as a reality.

This comparative impulse is one of the reasons that Hume called Scotland the 'historical nation': Scotland was the historical nation because the process of union that it was involved in confronted Scots with issues about the past and future, the stratification of history and the relationship between law and society in a way that other citizens of other societies (including the English) were not so immediatly confronted.