Discussed in this post:
5 Books (The History of White People; Other Council Fires Were Here Before Ours; Ojibwe Giizhig Anang Masinaa’igan; Austerlitz; and Nostromo);
2 Movie (10 Cloverfield Lane and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night);
3 Documentaries (Crumb; In the Realms of the Unreal; Salesmen).
1. The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.
Nell Irvin Painter is a renowned race scholar and in this text she turns her gaze to the history of white people. She looks at how whiteness came to be, how it came to be associated with a standard of beauty (notably through the traffic of female slaves from the Caucusas), with measurements of skulls, and with eugenics. She pays a lot of attention to how the definition of whiteness is continually expanded in the colonized United States in order to include first Irish and Italian people and then folks from Eastern Europe. Here, a considerable amount of racism, violence, and slavery, is considered. However, Painter focuses on how these things take place amongst various people who would all be considered white today — people of colour, African slaves, and Indigenous folks mostly don’t factor into conversations amongst whites about whiteness (or in conversations they have about themes they feel are related to whiteness — like beauty or humanity). Whiteness has considerable expanded over the years has new waves of European peoples immigrated to and colonized Turtle Island. In other words, whiteness is not what it used to be.
Or, rather, whiteness itself — who counts as white, how whiteness is measured and determined — may have changed considerably over time (and it may continue to change) but the interests served by notions of race — and of whiteness in particular — seem to remain fairly constant. Whiteness has always been a tool for asserting, maintaining, or strengthening supremacy be that over black slaves, “red Indians,” poor Irish immigrants, or uncultured Southerners whose bloodlines are compromised and degenerate.
Here the rise of ethnicity as a shift in focus from a focus on race is instructive. Ethnicity came to be a focus around the 1970s after various European races (Slavs, Italians, Greeks, Irish people) had all been incorporated into the white race. After this took place, other races on Turtle Island began to assert themselves as races and began to challenge the violence and genocide associated with White supremacy. Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the Puerto Rican Young Lords in New York City, and the American Indian Movement, all began to push back in a compelling and militant manner. This started producing guilt in white people. As a result, white people began to emphasize ethnicity instead of race — speaking of themselves as Italian-American or Dutch-Canadian. This permitted white people to shrug off white guilt, shift the focus from race to ethnicity, and still maintain all the benefits of white supremacy.
When of the things that comes out of this is that, when it comes to race, class and economic interests/power plays are critical to understanding how it developed and how it continues to function (although race also cannot and should not be reduced to these things only — much like it is true to say “all war is class war” [in that the warmongers at the head of things are always interested in advancing the class interests and material gains of the 1% when they are warmongering — and people from the lower classes always the ones stuck doing the killing and dying] one cannot simply reduce war to class war as this does not explain the often racial or religious reasons why individual soldiers choose to go and fight and kill or die).
That said, I’ve only barely just scratched the surface of what Painter does in this excellent book. It is highly recommended reading.
2. Other Council Fires Were Here Before Ours by Twyla Nitsch and Jamie Sams.
Twyla Nitsch (Yeh-Weh-Node — She Whose Voice Rides on the Four Winds) was a Seneca Wolf Clan elder, Granddaughter of a famous medicine man, Moses Shongo, and descendent of Chief Red Jacket, a renowned Seneca Orator. I’ve been keen to read some of her teachings ever since I started journeying into a renewed sense of wonder and mystery regarding all our relations and I discovered her book, The Language of the Stones (included as an Appendix in this volume). There is an helpful interview with her here and I particularly resonate with how she talks about kindness, gratitude, and love. Jamie Sams is Yeh-Weh-Node’s granddaughter and seems to have carved out a niche for herself in the realm of what is classified as New Age Spirituality. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that. I don’t know much about New Age Spirituality or how much it has cross-pollinated with traditional Indigenous teachings.
Other Council Fires Were Here Before Ours retells the Seneca creation story (and the several cycles of creation and recreation extending, through prophecies, beyond our present time). It is told by Geeh Yuk (Seven Talents) a member of the Stone tribe (and an actual stone that ends up being in the possession of Yewh-Weh-Node and who communicates with her through dreams and also through her ability to learn to read the markings on stones — which are actually memories recorded throughout the various ages and left so that we can learn from those rememberings).
There were some parts of this book that really resonated with me. Notions of Swen-i-o (The Great Mystery) and the focus on love and the intra-relatedness of all being(s) (including stones and other beings we — and even other animists like Eduardo Kohn, who places much stricter limits upon what he considers to be “living thought” capable of communicating in some ways with other “living thoughts” — would classify as “things”) all interest me at this point. Speaking of a Great Mystery seems to better describe my feelings that I neither believe in a God, nor disbelieve in a God, nor am agnostic. And this intra-relatedness of being(s) is something I’ve been exploring already on my own for quite some time, mostly with the trees and the Askunessippi, but also a little bit elsewhere as well.
Still, and here I really am demonstrating my ignorance of Seneca teachings, I wonder if there is also some European cross-pollination here. According to the stories told, there seems to be a memory of the beginning of the Ice Age as well as a memory of a time when all of the earth’s land was a single continent (and what primeval flood account appears here is simply localized floodings caused by the greed of the white race which causes the floodings that occur when the continents split apart. Both of these events predate the appearance of Homo Sapiens (we appeared around 1.8M years ago and possibly only really started developing language 100,000 years ago, the Ice Age began around 2.4M years ago and the continents split apart around 175M years ago). Speaking of races — five races are represented here (red, yellow, black, white, and brown) — this also seems to be a concept influenced by European thinking (as discussed in Painter’s book, for example). So I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps these are memories that have been passed on to Yeh-Weh-Node or her ancestors through Gee Yuk or others of his kind (after all, there are stones on Turtle Island that have been dated at 4.03 billion years old). That would be the likely interpretation if we employ an “hermeneutic of trust” but, of course, people only tend to do that with their own sacred texts and treat every other sacred text with an “hermeneutic of suspicion.”
3. Ojibwe Giizhig Anang Masinaa’igan. Ojibwe Sky Star Map Constellation Guide: An Introduction to Ojibwe Star Knowledge by Annette S. Lee, William Wilson, Jeffrey Tibbetts and Carl Gawboy.
I was never very good at find major stars or identifying constellations. But I never had much use for the stars. Living surrounded by light pollution I never noticed them much. Of course, I enjoyed camping and being out in the bush and seeing all of the stars that become visible once one leaves the city, but they were not much more than something beautiful witnessed a few nights out of the year — like going on a hike to see a waterfall or walking a trail along a gorge.
But for most people throughout human history, the stars have meant so much more than this. Unfortunately, one of the results of colonization and the hegemony of Eurocentric scientific models of the universe, is that other ways of knowing, experiencing, and relating to the stars have been erased. This little book helps to introduce the reader to Ojibwe Star Knowledge — how the Ojibwe saw the stars and, more than that, how they related to them. How the night sky was populated with constellations not named or shaped after mythical Greek characters but after animals and other characters from their stories. Each of these stories has a purpose and contains teachings that are relevant to the formation of individuals and groups. Because some constellations are seasonal, some stories can only be told during specific seasons. The interrelatedness of all being(s) is again emphasized (we are, after all, quite literally made of stardust). I like these stories. I am going to try and see if I can learn to see the stars — and, perhaps, see them for the first time.
4. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.
When I a teenager I used to read the ending of Lord Jim over and over again and cry in my bed because it was all so terribly romantic and tragic. It resonated with me a lot more than Heart of Darkness, because then I hadn’t yet realized The Horror, The Horror. It was fun to go back and read more Conrad. It has been awhile since I read him or anything from that era. These are the kinds of novels I really enjoyed as a kid and teenager. Not that there aren’t problems with all of this. I tend to associate Conrad with the likes of Dumas, Defoe, Hugo, and Kipling and that whole genre of the moralizing adventure novel that, despite whatever moral is being taught, is still infected with all kinds of Christian, imperialist, patriarchal, and colonizing overtones. So, although Nostromo is well written (I love how it builds to a climactic flight which may or may not save the day for the other characters, and then skips over that flight and says, “boy, wouldn’t it be a good story to tell about that one day but for now, let’s just say it worked out for everyone” and then continues telling the story it wants to tell) and vividly illustrates how wealth corrupts absolutely everything and everyone, even if the people involved are otherwise good and decent folks (and the greater the wealth, the greater the corruption), it still considers non-European people to be significantly less human than their European counterparts (even if those counterparts are womanizing, money-loving idlers), and treats women as a much weaker and stupider species than men. But, hey, I’m a white European male so I can still enjoy the book and set those things aside as tangential to the main plot and just recognize the book for the fine piece of literary art that it is. Phew.
5. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald.
Commenting on Austerlitz in The New York Times Book Review, Richard Eder states the following:
Sebald stands with Primo Levi as the prime speaker of the Holocaust and, with him, the prime contradiction of Adorno’s dictum that after it, there can be no art.
It’s a curious quote… both because what it claims about Sebald and what it claims about Adorno. Adorno’s famous quote is from a notoriously difficult essay but the lines in question state that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric… it has become impossible to write poetry today.” And yet, as Adorno knows, people have continued to write poetry. the conclusion, then, is that poetry (or art) can indeed exist after Auschwitz, but that all poetry (or art) is now, in some sense, barbaric (and, hence, since the very notion of poetry is inextricably linked to notions of the non-barbaric this ends up making poetry qua poetry impossible).
But what is Adorno on about when he speaks of barbarism? Well, to a certain extent, Adorno thinks even living after Auschwitz is barbaric. This is what he writes in a later text (Negative Dialectics):
Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living–especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared.
So, in a sense, one could conclude that living after Auschwitz is impossible. Here, I think, Adorno’s approach to barbarism parallels that of Wittgenstein’s approach to nonsense. The early Wittgenstein ended the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by concluding that there are strict limits to the kind of speech that might be considered sense-making (versus speech that is non-sensical). Hence, he asserted, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” In a later text (Zettel), he augmented this by saying, “for heaven’s sake, don’t be afraid of talking nonsense. But you must pay attention to your nonsense.” Both Adorno and Wittgenstein gesture as though they might refute their earlier statements… but in fact they are both more deeply entrenching their core argument. Wittgenstein still maintains the primacy of the nonsensical for our discussions of most things and Adorno still believes in the barbarism of everything after Auschwitz. Yet both communicate, later in life, in ways that are more open to recognizing the importance that a tortured person might place in screaming or that a people in general place in talking nonsense (and here Adorno and Wittgenstein come very close to each other because I think Adorno’s work on ideology is very close to Wittgenstein’s work on language).
Now, it should be pointed out that this sort of claim is not simply refuted by the production of a text… writing a poem after Auschwitz does not refute the claim that it is impossible to write (non-barbaric) poetry after Auschwitz just like living after Auschwitz does not refute the claim that it is impossible to live (non-barbaric) life after Auschwitz. Eder, I think, is rushing to the conclusion he desires to have (and, perhaps, trying to do so in a way that appears smart or ‘cultured’ to the readers of The New York Times Book Review who will surely be familiar with Adorno’s line — and so feel that their smarts are also flattered because they can identify what Eder is speaking about — even if they are unfamiliar with what Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics… which is somewhat ironic since Adorno takes aim at the so-called cultural critics in the essay where the line about poetry and Auschwitz appears).
However, by rushing to this conclusion, Eder may actually be proving another point Adorno makes about barbarism. Again, in Negative Dialectics, he writes:
Auschwitz irrefutably demonstrated the failure of culture. That it could happen in the midst of all the traditions of philosophy, art and the enlightening sciences, says more than merely that these, the Spirit, was not capable of seizing and changing human beings… Whoever pleads for the preservation of a radically culpable and shabby culture turns into its accomplice.
The commonplace point of reference here would be the S.S. Officers listening to Wagner, reading Rilke(!), studying Nietszche… and running concentration camps. If culture is something that builds and progresses and evolves — with the latter parts being somehow rooted within, related to, and based upon former parts — then the arts of Europe are somehow implicated in the building of death camps. Cultured critics should be cautious about simply asserting that Adorno was wrong simply because a text exists that they really like (Eder would have to show how Sebald’s text is free of barbarism in the sense intended by Adorno in order for his claim to be true… and I don’t really know how he would do that since even Eder’s appreciation of the text seems to argue against this). By doing so, they risk repeating the barbarism that Adorno sees as infecting everything — but not hopelessly so, as he urges us to do all we can to work our way out of barbarism (NB: Adorno’s talk about barbarism and that which is barbaric is all about Europeans — thereby unsettling the civilized/savages binary Europeans have liked to sell throughout the world).
If Adorno’s view seems too theoretical, a good example of how culture can become insidiously interwoven with the mass production of death is that of the recent use of the Ride of the Valkyries scene in Apocalypse Now (there’s Wagner again…). Apocalypse Now was produced and initially received as a very deeply moving anti-war movie. However, in recent years, the scene of the choppers riding at dawn to machine gun villages has been used to pump up American troops in Iraq before they went and bombed the shit out of Iraqi civilians.
So much for what Eder says about Adorno. What about what he says about Sebald (dammit, this is supposed to be a review of Austerlitz)? Well, to be honest, I don’t know how anyone (including the likes of Levi or Celan or Wiesel with words or Lanzmann or Resnais or Ophüls with films) can be a “prime speaker of the Holocaust.” How can one speak the unspeakable?
I think this exploration of things helps to highlight the aporetic condition of much of life (not only after Auschwitz but after Death in general and any mass production of Death in particular). We cannot write poetry, but we do. We cannot live, but we do. We cannot speak, but we do. The challenge is to make our speaking and living more free of barbarism. And I will say this of Sebald — he does write gently (but I think he writes more about Life than the Holocaust?). There is much empathy and compassion in the way he presents the characters who people his story (but Rilke — of all poets, Rilke, who was so ablaze with love of life and beauty and wonder even in the midst of fire and loss and terror — is mentioned by the S.S. Officers…). Furthermore, I found Austerlitz to be an extremely well-composed and well-written book. It inspired me to write the poem that I did for my brother on his 40th birthday. Very rarely do I star passages in novels anymore, but I did so in several places in this text. Recommended reading (barbaric or otherwise).
1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) directed by Dan Trachtenberg.
This is probably one of the tensest movies I have watched in quite awhile. As we all know by now, John Goodman plays villians phenomenally well and I think this may be his most genuinely terrifying villian to date. Despite the surreal goings-on (three people locked in a bunker while a foreign military or alien invasion might or might not be taking place overhead), what makes Goodman so scary is how real the fears are that he represents — Goodman is a big man, who is a little bit (or a lot?) broken up inside, but who is almost always very polite to women, always claiming to have their best interest in mind (and always claiming innocent intentions — i.e. “you remind me of my daughter,” followed by fatherly/patriachal acts of care)… who also may actually just want to use women in whatever sexual way he sees fit before murdering them and possible dissolving their bodies in the large bin of acid he happens to have in the bunker.
As I was thinking about this movie, I began to wonder why we are drawn to watch movies that are suspenseful in this way (spoiler alert for what follows).
There is a particular kind of fantasy at play here. I detest, cannot, and will not watch a lot of horror movies because I think they are straight-up fantasies about enacting sexual violence upon women. A lot of horror movies just hate women and get off on humiliating, dehumanizing, stripping, torturing, fucking and killing them. Elsewhere, I’ve tried to argue that a lot of very highly respected directors of critically acclaimed (festivals and theorists alike) films that explore sex and violence are really doing the same sort of thing (that by the way, is one of the best posts I think I’ve ever written on this blog but, alas, it’s so damn long I don’t think anybody read it!). But the suspense film, at least this kind of suspense film, is premised upon a different kind of fantasy — the fantasy of the threat of sexual violence which is never realized but constantly hanging over everything as an ominous and imminent possibility. The feelings one feels watching this are not arousal but an ever-building sense of dread punctuated by brief moments of relief and, ultimately, one final big sense of relief.
[Thought: If horror movies are a strip tease (in a Baudrillardian sense where a series of actions, gestures, and props, transforms the naked body of a women into a sign) then perhaps suspense movies are more like a burlesque show (where the audience is constantly teased and treated as though something is going to be revealed, but where it never actually is)?]
The question is why do we go seeking out that feeling and pay to experience it (I’ve switched to a “we” here because my bff, who is a gal, tends to enjoy watching these kinds of movies with me… as, of course, do many other people and they tend to be particularly enjoyed by couples going on a date to the movies)? It’s not as if fears about sexual violence are absent from our day-to-day lives. When this kind of suspense is experienced in our daily life it is extremely uncomfortable and we do everything we can to escape it or avoid it altogether. So, why then go to pursue that feeling in a movie theatre? Does this provide us with a safe place to experience and process these feelings (kinda like some people think we process feelings through scary dreams at night)? Or what? I don’t know what to think of this yet, but would be curious to hear what others think.
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.
Vampire movies — particularly artistic and unusual vampire movies (not so much True Blood, Anne Rice, Twilight, or Bela Lugosi… although the directed of Lugosi’s Dracula used his fame to forever after ruin his career by making the far more fascinating, and instantly banned movie, Freaks) have always had a special place in my heart. Roughly in order, I think my top five favourite vampire movies are Let the Right One In, Nosferatu, Only Lovers Left Alive, What We Do in the Shadows, and Thirst (which is a somewhat distant fifth and more of an almost but not quite). I was hoping to add A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to that list but despite the steady stream of perfectly composed black-and-white shots, it never quite gets there. It seems to be lacking… something. Perhaps what it is lacking is depth. It paints a very pretty picture but there doesn’t seem to be much — character, plot, anything at all — beyond that. And that’s okay, but it leaves the movie feeling a little flat in comparison to the other vampire films I mentioned. Really, this film plays out like an art and film school hipster nerd’s vampire fantasy… which, upon reading some background interviews, it actually is.
I have been thinking more about vampire movies in general — and why we are drawn to vampires — but I’d like to try and do a separate post about that. This one is already so damn long I doubt anybody is reading it.
1. Crumb (1994) directed by Terry Zwigoff.
The question I have been asking myself since watching this documentary is this: “Why do men hate women?”
However you answer that question, it’s clear that men like men who hate women. The success of R. Crumb in both the world of underground comics, the mainstream, and in the more pretentious art circles attest to this. Because Crumb’s comics misogynistic, highly sexually, and often extremely violent. In one comic, for example, the protagonist discovers he likes fucking a woman a lot more after her head has been removed. But the underground and so-called counter-culture eat him up. They love this male-dominated world of sexual violence portrayed as both a kind of humour (because having sex with a woman with no head is funny, right guys?) and as a kind of fantasy (Crumb himself says that he masturbates to his own comics). But the critics love Crumb, too (well, the male critics do – a few female critics who appear in the documentary seem a little more… circumspect, to say the least). Hollywood wants him but rarely get him. Disney wants him but can’t get him. The Stones ask him for an album cover but he declines. But he did agree to this documentary with Terry Zwigoff because Zwigoff was a personal friend going through a rough time. The film focuses on him and his brothers (he has two sisters who declined to be involved with the film… leaving any critical viewer terrified to imagine what it was like to grow up with three brothers – one of whom was Charles, who was medicated for being homicidal and suicidal, one of whom was Crumb, and one of whom was Max, who was in and out of psych wards for pulling down the pants of ladies in public (much to the delight of Crumb). Not surprisingly, the film critics love the documentary, even though Crumb was unhappy with it. His brother Charles didn’t live to see it, as he killed himself shortly after filming finished. And that resulted in the one piece of art Crumb has done that I’ve seen and admired.
In part, I suspect the critics like the movie it is because it is well made and the characters, although from life, appear to be a form of distorted, dark, and perverse (yet humourous?) cartoon — life imitates art, art imitates life, etc., even in the world of Crumb. From his desire to receive piggybacks from ladies with strong legs, to his tranquilized older brother Charlie’s stay-at-home almost Norman Bates-like relationship with their mother who, herself, became addicted amphetamines as she learned to survive her relationship with their extremely violent father, to his younger brother Max who is also highly medicated who sits on a bed of nails and spends three days swallowing a long nylon cord in order to be able to pull it through his digestive system and cleanse himself. It’s fascinating in it’s own way (like a horror movie, I suppose). But all of these people are testament to what a childhood dominated by violence, fear, scorn, and loneliness can produce.
But they are also a testament to more than that. As much as they are a product of a devastated family, they are also a product of the culture into which they were thrown. Crumb, for example, talks about being very confused in high school because girls were attracted to aggressive, macho, assholes. He claims that he was a sensitive, caring fellow but girls never like him. He thought girls would want to be with someone kind but discovered that they seemed to want to be with someone who treated them like shit. He claims he thought that girls would like him because he was like them, but says that he later realized that was exactly his mistake – girls, he says repeatedly, are attracted to power.
As a result, Crumb retreated to the world of comics where he began to sketch out his fantasies about women which are nothing like what might be called sensitive, kind or caring and which are, in fact, dominated by the sexualization of women and the exertion of male power and violence over their bodies. In many ways, Crumb’s comics are a criticism of mainstream American life and its superficiality, hypocrisy, absurdity, and unattractiveness, but on this core issue he ends up replicating it and (literally) getting off on it. As far as women go, Crumb has never been in love (he claims). He has, however, felt a “very powerful lust” towards women he has dated even though he openly states that he hates women (except for his daughter whom he claims to love, although the viewer can’t help but be disturbed by this as incest fantasies also play a role in his art).
So why do men hate women?
It seems to me that men hate women because they are taught, from an early age, that woman are not people but are objects that exist for their sexual gratification. Then, when they discover that they cannot, in fact, simply use the body of any woman they want in any way they want, they end up resenting women for having the kind of agency that permits them to say no. In other words, they resent them for being people – just like men (at least in terms of personhood). I think this is the same hatred and resentment that white folks still feel about black folks in the USofA and that Settlers still feel about Indigenous people in the occupied territories we call Canada. And, perhaps, that meat eaters feel about other animal life? I mean, sure, I’d become a vegetarian – all the documentaries I’ve watched on the subject of eating meat are just appalling and brutal and disgusting and sad – but meat just tastes so good. I think the same applies with men and women. I mean, sure, I’d become a male ally of women – all the documentaries I’ve watched on the subject of gender relationships and male violence are just appalling and brutal and disgusting and sad – but women just taste so good. A lot of men never get passed this. And our patriarchal, androcentric culture makes it quite easy for them not to get passed this.
[Aside: after watching this documentary, it makes sense that Crumb would create an illustrated version of the book of Genesis. The author of that document also very clearly hated women.]
2. In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004) directed by Jessica Yu.
From that not really so counter-cultural art of R. Crumb, I moved to the “outsider art” of Henry Darger. Darger was born in Chicago just before the arrival of the 20th century. His mother died giving birth to his sister when he was four. His sister was taken immediately from the family and adopted by strangers. His dad quickly faded away and died in a “poor home.” Darger, himself, was sent to boarding school and then an institution for “feeble minded” children. The documentary doesn’t go much into the history of this kind of institution – although it does touch upon some of the horrendous abuse that took place there – but institutions like this were popping up, especially in the Southern States, during the heyday of American eugenics (as explored in Painter’s book, discussed above). Darger escaped from this institution, walked most of the way back to Chicago and got a job as a janitor in a Catholic hospital. He worked as a hospital janitor for the rest of his life. He died in his early seventies in the same poor home where his father died. He attended Mass five times per day and, apart from one friend, he lived and died alone, unknown, and in poverty.
After he was sent to the poor home, his landlord – who just happened to be connected to the art scene in Chicago, went through Darger’s apartment and discovered volume after volume of stories and art work. 15,000 pages of story (perhaps the longest ever written) with copious charts and illustrations – some spanning 12 feet in length. The art was quickly recognized as brilliant and now shows in top galleries around the world.
Darger’s art is curious. It is childlike (in many ways, Darger seems to have remained childlike in his thinking over the years), but often very violent (which is often something reflected in the art of children who have experienced or witnessed violence). There is also often nudity – particularly the nudity of the slave girls who are fighting for their freedom, but these girls are almost always drawn with penises. This has led to many different hypotheses (Darger didn’t know that girls didn’t have the same genitals as boys, Darger wanted to be a girl himself so he drew the girls like him, and so on) but nobody seems to be really sure why this is the case. However, unlike Crumb, who admits to masturbating to his own work, the nudity one finds in Darger seems to be a reflection of an innocence in relation to sexual matters. Even the waffling back and forth between good and bad – Darger appears as a charcter on both sides at different points in the story and different and opposite endings exist (one where the girls win, one where the men win) – seems reminiscent of how children waffle back and forth in situations of violence, trying to find their footing, form some sense of identity, and embody a particular morality (this whole testing out of good and evil in children is part of what leads Louis C. K. to not give his kids cellphones). Similarly, it’s hard to know if his lifelong dream to adopt a child (never fulfilled) was a desire to have another playmate, or spare someone else the torment he went through as a child, or a way of recovering his lost sister, or what. And this is precisely part of the appeal of Darger’s story (the same reason, by the way, that I enjoy exploring abandoned houses or other rundown buildings): we get a glimpse of something fascinating, and something bigger than what we can know, we receive a few tantalizing hints, but ultimately we don’t know and can’t know the full story or even how all the pieces work together.
3. Salesman (1968) directed by the Maysles Brothers.
Salesmen is a documentary about a group of traveling Bible salesmen who go to predominantly Irish Catholic neighbourhoods on the east coast of the USofA and try to convince low income women that they need large, expensive, colourful Bibles. Sales don’t come easily, and the men are constantly unhappy (except when playing poker it seems) and threatened with unemployment — but when asked about their work they persist in presenting themselves as free men, not bound to an office or wages or bosses, living life on the open road. It’s a bullshit lie but it sounds like the American Dream (another bullshit lie) and so people seem to never not believe them.
Salesmen helps to expose the interweaving of Christianity and capitalism, of proselytizing and profits, documented already by the likes of Weber and Tawney but persisting up until the present day. In fact, what is a (surely somewhat shocking) documentary in ’68 becomes part of a sustained lineage of documentaries like Marjoe or even more recent ones like Hell House, Jesus Camp and The Virgin Daughters. Of course, there are subgenres to this. The exposure of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is an obvious example of that and many films come to mind, from The Boys of St. Vincent, to Deliver Us From Evil, Sex Crimes of the Vatican, Hand of God, Mea Maxima Culpa, Who Takes Away the Sin, and the counterpoint documentary A Matter of Conscience, which focuses on whisteblowers in the Catholic church (another subgenre of this subgenre would be docs that focus upon abuse within the Fundamentalist Mormon church, which I’ve discussed in a prior set of reviews).
The influence of Salesmen extends beyond this specific documentary lineage. I also suspect that it is one point of inspiration for Roy Andersson’s absurdist existentialist satirical (and absolutely brilliant) Living trilogy, with obvious parallels between the miserable salesmen (who just want to help people have fun) in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, to the crucifix salesmen in You, The Living.
However, I’m interested in how this genre of film — the whole exposé of the immorality of a group that claims moral high ground thing — continues to persist given that this sort of thing is as old as, oh, the prophets of YHWH. Still, I suppose it’ll be necessary for as long as some folks persist is claiming that they are better than others.
But it’s interesting that religion continues to be such a popular target given that in many cultures religion doesn’t hold the same place of socioeconomic and political influence that it once had. Here, it feels like a bit of sleight of hand has taken place. Part of what was good about criticizing Christianity was that Christianity was part of central networks of power that were oppressing, abusing, enslaving, and robbing large numbers of people. Now, although Christianity still contributes to do that in a lot of places (notably the USofA), these practices continue elsewhere but other institutions have taken over the central places of power. Consequently, criticisms of religion have lost a lot of their subversive or revolutionary edge and are blunted in their ability to contribute to life-giving or life-affirming change. As such, they can easily fit into the perpetuation of a status quo that is just as oppressive as the world was under Christendom, but, because of where they focus, they can mislead us into thinking we are living in a somehow more enlightened, less opressive world when, in fact, we are not.
For example, let’s attend to the observation I (and others) have often made that healthcare has replaced religion as the primary means of morally justifying the use of force upon deviant populations. Within social services governed by the medical model, everyone is appalled by the sexual abuse that was (is?) endemic to the Catholic Church. Everyone is horrified that the Church would simply reassign a priest to another parish so that a new group of people could be abused, until the priest is reassigned again, and a new group of people is abused, and so on.
Yet what is the standard practice in social services today if a staff member engages in sexual activity with a client (also a form of sexual abuse — like an employer having sex with an employee, or a professor with a student, or a guard with a prisoner)?
The employee is dismissed and given some kind of severance package in return for signing a non-disclosure agreement, where both parties (the employee and the employer) agree not to discuss any of the reasons for the dismissal. If the employee lawyers up or fights back, the employee can also get a generic letter of reference and make sure that it is noted that s/he is being dismissed without cause. This ensures that the dismissed employee will be able to go to another agency and continue to work in the same field, being granted power over similarly vulnerable clients. But this is done to protect the brand status of the agency, to prevent any kind of public scandal, to protect the agency from outside scrutiny, and to ensure that donor dollars and government funding continue to be deposited into the company coffers.
In other words, social service agencies — populated by people appalled by how the Catholic Church handled sexual abuse cases — are engaging in the exact same kind of cover-up. But, for all the documentaries (not to mention non-documentary films like The Magdalene Sisters, or Calvary or the Oscar-winning Spotlight) that discuss Catholic sexual abuse cases, I can think of no films that discuss sexual exploitation and abuse of clients in social services (apart from very old films like the Titticut Follies which we view as glimpses into a world that now no longer exists).