Saturday, August 29, 2009

Images of What I Hope Will Be the Future of American Conservatism

This started off as a post about Meghan McCain of all people, but between drafts, Ted Kennedy died, and buried within the endlessly repetitive news bluster are a couple of very intriguing ideas about American politics. One is the idea that American political culture has become so ideologically rigid that lawmaking is a matter of reversing the opposition predecessors’ policies, and that such lifelong public servants no longer exist.

I laugh at this last point, because whenever people say something doesn’t exist anymore in a human society, it appears again in a new guise. Perhaps the career politician of the future won’t be the one who sits in the same Senate seat for decades, but the one who goes from lobbying to think tanks to legislature to punditry to legislature again. But career politicians will always exist. But ideological rigidity is certainly the defining attribute of American politics today, especially among conservatives.

It must be hard being a moderate Republican in America today. Their leading figures are Mitch McConnell, who apparently still doesn’t believe that Reagan’s insane market deregulation schemes are a bad idea; Michael Steele, a black Alex P. Keaton who isn’t quite as suave or sophisticated; Dick Cheney, who wouldn’t be out of place in fascist Bolivia in the 1960s; and Sarah Palin, crazed arch-conservative Beat poet. Arlen Specter realized that the only way he could get anything done for his constituents was to switch his affiliation from liberal Republican to conservative Democrat. In the middle of this polarized environment is the most fascinating twitter account I follow: Meghan McCain.

Meghan McCain’s twitter constantly and loudly reminds her followers that she is, in fact, a Republican, even though she’s okay with homosexuals. Her self-declared mission is to show a different face to the Republican party, even though her savvy progressive conservatism is barely understood by the actual GOP levers of power. She also tweets about True Blood and her guilty pleasures of reality trash tv. She also loves The Big Lebowski, Wes Anderson, Walt Whitman, and shoes.

Even though I think twitter is the venue that could revive the art of the aphorism in philosophy, McCain doesn’t cover a lot of deep thoughts here. But she’s very good at projecting the image of her personality, the Sexy Progressive Republican™. I think that’s the only thing she’s actually able to do at this point in her political career. If she does eventually go on to add the McCains to the list of American political dynasties (Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, and going back very far, Adams), she will eventually have to bulk up on policy.

But I can see it taking shape in a very vague way, even just a month or so into following her twitter. There will be rhetoric with an ear for intelligent American patriotism, cribbing from Whitman’s poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Again connected with Whitman will be a conservationist environmental agenda, the necessity of the climate crisis transforming her father’s vague statements on the subject into a top policy imperative. One point that’s already clear from her twitter posts is an agenda to safeguard gay rights, including marriage, nationally, under the philosophy of an agenda to enforce civil rights and freedoms. There’s legal precedence for this being set in conservative American circles now as well.

Probably her only major problem is that she isn’t really taken very seriously. While she’s filling in for Elizabeth Hasselbeck for a week on The View next month, in terms of that show’s format it amounts to little more than replacing their token blonde conservative with another. However, I do expect her to deliver some more intelligent thinking than the blandly reactionary Hasselbeck. But other than this, the major piece of news generation she’s done in the last year is to get in a fight with Laura Ingraham, another token blonde conservative reactionary, about her weight, which is that of an average healthy human. This contrasts with typical American ideals of a healthy, attractive body, which is that of an emaciated anorexic barely able to breathe.

Being slotted into arguments about superficial nonsense is where a lot of rigidly ideological conservatives think women should go anyway, so the fact that she has managed to move beyond such idiocy is to her credit. Despite the ghetto of unintelligent, patronizing debate she found herself in last year, she's actually displayed intelligence and worldliness, through her Daily Beast writing and that twitter account. She's just under two years younger than me, and has already accomplished far more than I've even tried, even if being the daughter of a long-serving senator and a Presidential candidate has given her some help.

But I wouldn't be surprised if in thirty years, we're talking about the political career of McCain the younger, always in politics but going from one job to another, advancing the same goals of fiscal and foreign policy conservatism wedded to social liberalism and civil rights. As much as I love surrealist poetry, when it comes to women in the conservative party of the country next door, I'd take her running for President in 2028 over Sarah Palin in 2012 gladly.
Heidegger essays and Burial go together extremely well. Almost too well. I’m reading him for my thesis research, mining for ideas that have been picked up by deep ecology and looking for alternative interpretations. It is some of the most dense philosophical writing I have ever read, especially the essays from later in his career, trying to create a new kind of philosophy by sheer force of will.

Burial is an electronic musician from London, slotted in the category of dubstep, though like all good musicians and all good philosophers, he doesn’t fit into categories. Until recently, he was entirely anonymous, creating music in his room and releasing it through his pseudonym. They are dark, strange, immense, and beautiful soundscapes, constructed around weirdly timed beats, sparse instrumentation, and vocal samples. It’s another example of music that I haven’t heard anything quite like before, even though I’m about two years late jumping on the Burial bandwagon. Sorry, Pitchfork-heads, but I just haven’t bothered.

UPDATE: 20.45. This article at The Daily Beast, reviewing Sam Tanenhaus' new book The Death of Conservatism, makes my point about American politics much better than I do here.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

History's Disconnection

It is an immensely weird experience to read Time Regained in 2009. The last volume of In Search of Lost Time is Proust’s portrait of Paris during the First World War, though in all fairness and accuracy, I should call it The Great War. Proust died in 1922, and wrote most of Time Regained while the war was ongoing. So he never saw the catastrophic development of the German economy, the resurgence of nationalism, or the Nazi Party and the Second World War.

His Paris of 1916 is utterly traumatized and largely broken by the bombardment and the slow, dragged out terror of the war. I think people today, or even people from the 1950s onward, really appreciate how horrifying the Great War was to the people who were living through it. We see the war historically, as a prelude to the greater cataclysms of the Holocaust, the rape of Nanking, the massacres of Slavs on the Eastern Front, the nuclear bombings, and the firebombings. The almost worldwide destruction of the 1940s made the bloody trenches in France and the years-long artillery barrage of the Eastern Front look like a scuffle at a bar.

But the characters of Proust, and the man himself, are watching the collapse of their entire world, quite literally I think. The quaint, mannered lifestyle he described in the entire rest of the story simply don’t make sense in a world where every night brings the constant fear of Zeppelin bombings, and there’s a stupendous chain of trenches and battlefields barely a hundred miles away from your city. At this point, I begin to see In Search of Lost Time as cataloguing the history of a forgotten, innocent world. Where I’m reading right now, one of the major characters has just died, shot in the face with a machine gun while covering his regiment’s retreat. It makes the narrator’s previous anxieties over what arrangements to meet for a restaurant date seem nonsensically trivial.
In other, awesome, news, The Kids in the Hall are back together to produce new material. It’s a murder mystery in a small Canadian town called Death Comes to Town, which will play on CBC in January 2010. It will be an eight part miniseries, and will include such scenes as Mark McKinney’s Grim Reaper taking a Greyhound to the town of Shockton, and Bruce McCulloch playing a 600 pound man. I am, needless to say, quite excited.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quite a Paradoxical Steel Town

So I went to a suburban mall this afternoon to buy a new watch, and ended up missing the bus back downtown. Suburban Hamilton is an area called The Mountain, a name which my office-mate Jessica from the interior of British Columbia considers laughable. But the suburbs are cleanly divided from the city’s interior by an escarpment that goes up several hundred metres.

Sick of waiting for another bus in the heat of August, I started walking in the general direction of my home with no idea if any of the roads back down the escarpment even had sidewalks. As it turned out, they didn’t, but I had no need to wait for another bus. Crossing the road before the highway-style street began, I walked through a small park with a modest stone pavilion, a series of bright grey arches covered in ivy along one side. Looking out the pavilion, I could see the road, as well as a sidewalk that ran along a thick grove of trees, protected from the road by a waist-high cement barrier.

I crossed the road at one of the gaps in the barrier, and after walking along the protected sidewalk for a few minutes, discovered a metal staircase that led all the way down the escarpment. It was deeply shaded by a canopy of trees and lit by old fashioned black streetlamps that needed to be on to light the way even in the middle of a sunny afternoon. It was a swath of dense forest in the middle of a busy road system, and a pedestrian was so deeply hidden that I couldn’t even hear the traffic until I left the woods and got back out onto James street.

Think of that when anyone calls Hamilton a dirty city again.
In other news, the latest Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice, has been released this week, though it'll be a while before I get around to reading it. It'll take me about a month to finish In Search of Lost Time, and then I have my courses starting again, that I'm taking and helping to teach.

Inherent Vice is a detective novel, basically, except that it's written by Thomas Pynchon. It takes place in 1970 in Los Angeles, with a stoner private detective Doc Sportello as the protagonist. This teaser trailer from Penguin Press (which might even be narrated by Pynchon himself) lays out the whole book for you, or at least as much as can be sanely summarized without actually reading it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grief and Forgetting: A Positive Proust Update

So many of my posts about Proust lately have been so mean-spirited, a reader would probably wonder why I was continuing with the book for any reason other than stubbornness. While it is true that the narrator’s selfish, jealous, manipulative behaviour has made me scream at him through the pages, my frustration has given way to admiration again. It’s not a matter of brilliant creation of paradoxical and consistent characters, which was the highlight of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Much of The Fugitive is the narrator dealing with the fact that Albertine is never coming back to him. It’s a process of grief that shares elements with what I think is how many people get through the permanent and painful end of deep friendships and intimate relationships. The Fugitive is the shortest novel in the series at less than 400 pages, and suffered from the most difficult editing because it was the farthest from total completion when Proust died. But his insights into the grieving process and, even more poignant, the process of forgetting about who you’ve lost, is some of the best psychology I’ve ever read.

Because I think this engagement with grief that Proust’s narrator goes through is, detail for minutely rendered detail, is an engagement that is shared by anyone who has ever lost someone who was immensely important to you, whether through death or breakup or any other kind of irreparable split.

Reading these reflections, which are the main focus of the first half of The Fugitive, and recur throughout the more story-focussed second half, I’m reminded of the old friends that I’ve had who I’ll never see again. No one very close to me in an intimate personal manner has ever died, but I did lose some of my closest friends a couple of years ago.

For the first year or so after that last catastrophe of those relationships, I couldn’t walk around St John’s without feeling depressed, because every piece of that city’s geography reminded me of something I did with them. It was a sorrowful rage because I was depressed that they were out of my life, and angry that they had cut me out of their lives with such callousness. I think that state of my thinking contributed to why I leapt so enthusiastically into moving to Ontario in summer 2008.

Since then, my former friends have sometimes entered my thoughts, and when that happens, they bring that melancholy anger with them. But that happens with less and less frequency now, so that I only think of them when I purposely recall those memories. Just as Proust said, you don’t accept the end of a deep intimacy. You simply forget it, and live every day as if it never existed. I think the influence of those friendships and those splits is still part of my personality. I think very differently about how I act and what I want out of life because of those experiences.

But the memories themselves simply fade away. It’s entirely possible that one day, I’ll forget about them as individual people, and only a few last echoes of the emotions they inspired will be still carved into my brain. They’ll probably be overwritten soon enough, if not already.

In a few sentences, the process sounds pedantic and clichéd. But over the course of the 100 plus pages Proust focusses on it, it feels fresh, insightful, tender, and utterly sad. I now understand why some critics have said that all of human possibility is captured in In Search of Lost Time. Even though the story is about an upper class French intellectual in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I now understand how those critics could be right.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

My Views Are Validated by Agreement with People Who Have Larger Audiences

Den of Geek has an excellent essay, which they published only a few days after mine, on why Ianto Jones should stay dead to preserve the aesthetic triumph of Torchwood: Children of Earth. We each have our central points in common, though I do focus more specifically on the character development of Captain Jack over the past four years. Either way, I’m glad to see that I’ve tapped into a flow of clear, critical nerd thinking.

People who want to bring Ianto back to the show just because they liked him so much always make terrible television, simply because they become so distracted by the big shiny thing they love so much that they forget about the importance of the story which that shininess should service. For an illustrative example from Doctor Who, see Warriors of the Deep and every Master story from 1982 to 1986.
Having begun The Fugitive, I am already tired of dealing with this petulant moron of a narrator. He has spent the first fifty pages of the story pining over Albertine’s having finally left him, but instead of honestly coming clean to her about his indecisive and anti-commital attitude, he cooks up a scheme to manipulate her into coming back to him while still making it seem as if he doesn’t care about her all that much.

This narrator is trying to save face for no reason that I can discern, and all he has done is make himself absolutely miserable and wave it in the reader’s face for the past three volumes. At least Sodom and Gomorrah had enough subplots and philosophical digressions to keep me interested. Albertine was an intriguing character when the narrator wasn’t hoarding her in his house like a favourite pet that he didn’t want to escape. His jealousy was ironically interesting when it was impotent. When she was in his power, it became frustrating and a little disgusting.

Perhaps The Captive and The Fugitive are slightly more sloggish because Proust never lived long enough to expand them to the size of the earlier volumes, which had enough variety in their plots to keep the narrator’s mysoginistic obsessiveness from weighing too heavily on a reader. While the earlier, longer volumes had more material, they never felt long because there was more variety, and more shifts of emphasis and mood. Thankfully, Albertine will fade into the background of the story as The Fugitive continues into the sections I’m whimsically calling, ‘Catching up with the Swanns.’

Apologies for the whimsy. I’ve been reading some Stephen Fry lately as well.