"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Downton Abbey–Why We Love Rich Aristocrats

I recently watched Winter’s Bone, a long and depressing movie about an Ozark family struggling through poverty, cold, and inbred mountain family jealousies. This was no Eugene O’Neill country – the brutal terrain of Mourning Becomes Electra where the Mannon family destroys itself in a melodramatic grand guignol and explores the dynamics of greed, jealousy, spite, and power – but a slog through the mud and cold.  Each character was backward, ignorant, and dumb; and their attempt to find some kind of reconciliation and meaning was implausible and impossible.

I switched the channel and began to watch The Tudors, series about the life and times of Henry VIII.  It had everything – opulence, elegance, manners, and majesty. It was engaging, sumptuous, and dramatic. Nothing could have been farther from the Ozark trailer trash of Winter’s Bone than the court of King Henry.  The women were all beautiful, the men dashing and confident.  Cardinal Wolsey, always concerned about pomp and appearance as well as power, dressed to the nines – crimson cape, gold chain, ceremonial cap, satin slippers.  He rustled through the chambers of power.  He had an air of sanctity and authority.

The young King, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was a handsome, young, alluring version of the original.  All of the real Henry’s bombast and Falstaffian robust appetites were gone, and in their place was a feline grace and sexuality.  Women glided in and out of court.  Advisors whispered and plotted, rose to power, and went to the gallows, but they were all aristocrats – educated, well-schooled and well-heeled, and all compelling in their villainy. The court was rife with intrigue and ambition, but on the surface was all good manners and breeding.  I watched the entire series.

Chrystia Freeland writing in the New York Times (1.30.14) about the popularity of Downton Abbey says that in addition to the costumes, the opulence, and the décor, Americans are drawn to the series for another, more important reason:

Another source of the show’s appeal is the profound similarity between the vast economic, social and political changes that drive the action in “Downton Abbey” and our own time.

Then, as now, new technologies were creating vast fortunes, but causing some, like Mrs. Patmore, the cook at Downton, to worry that their jobs will become redundant. Then, as now, income inequality was surging. Then, as now, these changes were shattering social restrictions and liberating individuals from the old constraints of gender, class and even sometimes race, but also made many feel insecure.

Another view through the lens of race, class, and gender.  Another graduate course at Duke (Literary Praxis Beyond the Melodramas of Commitment: Edward Upward, Soviet Aesthetics, and Leftist Self-Fashioning). Another foray into academic history-babble. Nonsense.  We tune in to Downton Abbey because we like to watch the super-rich, the English aristocracy, and lives of quiet elegance.  In other words, all that we will never have.

Victorian England has always had a hold on America.  Empire, Churchillian values, confidence, reverence for God, King, and Country, the discipline of Eton and Harrow that made leaders of men; and above all, pomp and ceremony. 

In all PBS Edwardian soap operas, like Upstairs, Downstairs, we may have rooted for the scullery maid or the footman, enjoyed the camaraderie and earthy enjoyment of the staff, but we cared only for the toffs.

Victorian and Edwardian England seems remote, but the images of an even earlier England, that of the imperial King George who ruled us in the 1700s, are American emblems.  Our Founding Fathers looked like Englishmen, dressed like them, behaved as aristocratically as their forefathers, built English-style homes as graceful and elegant as the country manors of England. 

                                            Montpelier, country estate of James Madison

Our Eastern city neighborhoods are English. Georgetown, Beacon Hill, and Rittenhouse Square are like South Kensington or Holland Park.

We Americans idolize our movie stars.  Although their glitzy, glamorous lives are far beyond our reach, they are not that far. Thousands of women have looked in the mirror and seen a face as classically beautiful as Angelina Jolie or as pouting and sexy like Scarlett Johansson. With a little luck and a few connections, I might be in Hollywood too, they say.

Aristocratic England is all the more appealing because it is remote and impossibly unattainable. We would fumble and drop our forks at Downton Abbey or trip over the Persian carpet at Montpelier.  English Lords and their estates, fox hunting, understatement, and chauffeurs are way beyond us.  We can imagine having a beer with Matthew McConaughey, but not the Third Earl of Hereford. 

There is much more to Downton Abbey, of course, than just displays of wealth and privilege.  It is set in  Edwardian England before World War I, a period of political and social change which would culminate in the War to End All Wars.  The war did no such thing, but did change English and European society forever.  The growing storm of war and its threat to the English aristocracy are perfect backdrops to the unfolding family drama.

There is a wonderful scene in the film Russian Ark in which Tsar Nicholas and his family sit down to an elegant meal as the Bolsheviks are rampaging only a few miles away.  They have no clue about what horrors are coming.

The Crawley family of Downton Abbey do know what a world war will bring, but they can only hope that it doesn’t happen and are just as powerless as Nicholas to do anything about it.

The impending political and social chaos provides an added element to the family drama, and gives their plight a particular poignancy. Viewers are fearful for the fate of the Crawleys along with them and for the same reason. No one wants to see the old aristocratic order threatened.  Although we may be democratic to the bone, we will always side with the aristocrats – at least on screen – shed a tear at their fall, but conclude they had it coming.

There has always been an expressed distrust if not hatred for the rich.in the American ‘progressive’ community  The rich are monopolists, Wall Street manipulators, and venture capitalists who buy and sell people like slaves.  Yet this antipathy is in the abstract – an intellectual conclusion based on a populist, socialist view of history. Equality is the goal, they say – not just raising the lot of the poor, but lowering the standards of the rich.

Northern intellectuals hate the South and would like to finish the job that Sherman started – burn all vestiges of plantation life.  The very existence of manors and estates is anathema and a constant reminder of the evil history of the South.

Yet few of these Northerners can look at the architectural beauty, impeccably tasteful interiors, long, live oak-lined allées, formal gardens, and sweeping lawns without some envy.  Image and romance trump political philosophy any day of the year.

The genius of Downton Abbey is that it allows good, democratic-minded Americans, salt-of-the-earth and intellectuals alike to enjoy themselves.  They can admire, desire, and romanticize about the lives of the rich and famous, and revel in their fall.

Downton Abbey” is today’s “Gone With the Wind.” We enjoy the excesses it depicts partly because we know that the elite cavorting on our screens has had its real-life comeuppance.

Better still, when it comes to class, privilege and wealth, “Downton Abbey” lets us have our cake and eat it, too. The show gives us a voyeuristic peek at the pleasures of being an Edwardian aristocrat, but it also allows us to feel smarter and better than the blue bloods of that period. We delight in their fancy table settings — so much so that you can learn how to sew your own Downton-style table runner on the show’s Facebook page and question Lisa Heathcote, the show’s food stylist, on Twitter —  but we know that their way of life is ending, and that that is pretty much a good thing.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Families–Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them

“He eats like a lizard”, said my mother of Uncle Harry. “He just sits there then suddenly snaps at his food”.

He ate less like a lizard than looked like one – large, hooded eyes, one slightly louche that moved like a reptile looking for a fly.  His skin was scaly.  His psoriasis had lost its flaming red and was now just crusted on his forearms.  No one liked to look at him or watch him eat.

“But generous”, my mother said. “Generous to a fault”.  He had given my aunts and uncles a lot of financial support, usually cash in an envelope put tactfully by the plastic flowers in the sitting room of  Aunt Carmela’s walkup in Wooster Square; or a twenty put in Uncle Johnny’s breast pocket as he draped his arm around his younger brother’s shoulder.

As far as I could tell, both Johnny and Carmela were leeches and lived off my uncle’s generosity.  They came to him for money every week.  If it wasn’t the furnace that needed repair, it was my Cousin Nello’s palsy.  Uncle Harry hated and resented the whining and cadging of his brothers and sisters but put up with it because his mother had begged him to help the less fortunate members of the family.

The family fights among the brothers and sisters were legendary – not only because of Uncle Harry’s supposed favoritism, but because they were jealous of each other.  I could never understand where their envy and spite came from.  Each one was poorer than the next.  Moving up in the world meant literally moving one floor higher above the alley cats, garbage, and coal chutes.  Everything, however, was a trade off. The linoleum floors on the second floor were cracked and warped, the radiators banged and hammered because the pipes on the Wallace Street side of the building had never been replaced; and the baking smells from Lucibello’s, enticing to the occasional visitor were downright sickening if you had to smell them day after day.

One uncle was a laborer at the Winchester Arms factory, another worked the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, and a third swept floors at the Clock Factory.  None of them had a pot to piss in, my mother said.  Auntie Angie’s walkup always did have a trace of cat urine but that was overwhelmed by the smell of mothballs and coal oil.

In any case, all the brothers and sisters hated each other.  It is surprisingly difficult to get back at someone when you are poor.  No one owned a car, so you couldn’t foul plugs, cut wires, or puncture tires. No one had a bank account, there were no welfare checks to pilfer, and since nothing worked in the building anyway, it was impossible to gum the plumbing up any more than it was.

So the family resorted to rumor and innuendo; but again, poverty didn’t leave much room for inventiveness.  Everyone came home knackered from ten hours on the factory floor, had just enough time for a bowl of pasta and a bottle of Chianti before passing out on the sofa.  No cinq a sept liaisons to cover up, no paper trails of expensive gifts to lovers.  Even a lingering scent of cheap perfume, so overlaid with the garlic and mothballs in every apartment, would never be noticed.

No matter how they tried, the sexual route to disgrace was a dead end. “What do you mean, Mikey’s screwing her?”, Aunt Viola snorted. “He hasn’t gotten it up in years.”

The only way to rile up the relatives was through their children, and they cooked up wild stories about how daughters were going with darkies from East Haven, how Father D’Alessio kept finding panties in the confessional, and how Lydia had missed her period.

Few of these stories took hold; so the only recourse left was the tried and true, classic squabble about money, as little as there was.  Whatever little my grandmother had saved, there was definitely not enough to go around after her death, and since she never wrote a will, everything was up for grabs.  The ensuing fakery, empty expressions of love and concern, and sheer deceit was worthy of Gooper and Mae, the greedy relatives of Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Once Gooper and Mae learn that Big Daddy has terminal cancer, they ramp up the love and attention in one final push to get the bulk of his inheritance.  In the final scene, Gooper tells what’s really eating him:

I’ve resented Big Daddy’s partiality to Brick ever since Brick was born, and the way I’ve been treated like I was barely good enough to spit on and sometimes not even good enough for that.

Mae is not troubled by any Oedipal or Cain and Abel issues.  She is just greedy and anxious to get her hands on the biggest estate in Mississippi.

There are hundreds of modern stories, plays, and novels about family greed and venality, but I like Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes best.

Regina's brother Oscar has married Birdie, his much-maligned, alcoholic wife, solely to acquire her family's plantation and its cotton fields. Oscar now wants to join forces with his brother, Benjamin, to construct a cotton mill. They approach their sister with their need for an additional $75,000 to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes marriage between his son Leo and Regina's daughter Alexandra – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace's money, but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. When Regina asks Horace outright for the money, he refuses, so Leo, a bank teller, is pressured into stealing his uncle Horace's railroad bonds from the bank's safety deposit box. (Wikipedia Plot Summary)

Edward Albee, Hellman, Williams, and O’Neill – like Shakespeare before them - understood that families are both the source of most of the greed, animosity, and venality in the world; and the best expression of them.  Human nature is the same whether directing competitive, selfish ambitions in the family, community, or country.  Far from criticizing families for their pitiless selfishness and greed, these playwrights saw them as crucibles within which people test their morals, ethics, honesty, courage, and finally themselves. 

Arguably Albee’s best work is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play in which George and Martha flay each other during an evening with guests.  They wound each other so deeply that George concludes that they have not only cut each other to the bone but to the marrow.  The fight is epic.  Martha is a harridan, flesh-eating harpy whose cruelty knows no restraint.  She destroys George piece by piece, until every weakness has been exposed.  George is more ironic in his attacks on Martha but through his elaborate and more and more intimate and revealing games, is just as cruel and vicious.  There can be nothing left of either of their old selves, and they both know it.

Yet at the end of the play Albee shows that this humiliating, destructive spectacle was absolutely necessary.  George and Martha depend on each other desperately, and only by stripping away all illusion, pretense, and – in Brick Pollitt’s words, duplicity – can they ever restore their marriage to a more reasonable, healthy, and happy state

They would have never arrived at such a primal stage – very much like Lear on the heath, a man reduced to his elemental self - ‘an unaccomnodated man, a poor, a bare, forked animal’ – unless they had had to live within the crucible of an intense and irrevocable marriage.

The story of Lear is, of course, the quintessential family story of ambition, greed, jealousy, and hatred. He so totally underestimated the nature of families and especially his own, the resentments and hostilities of children towards each other and especially towards their parents, that he naively divided and distributed his kingdom while he was still alive.  Far from keeping the will out of probate, it simply raised the ante.  Not satisfied with the lands they had been bequeathed and given the third of their honest sister, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan set out to destroy their father, cruelly deprive him of his courtiers, his horses, and his dignity.  They are the real Evil Sisters of Shakespeare.

Many observers have noted what they see as the obsolescence of the family.  Why constrain newly-liberated women and sexually adventurous men within an outdated construct.  Childbearing is an option, not a given; and can be achieved through a range of technological options.  Neither mother nor father – only eggs and sperm – will be required for procreation, and fluid, adaptive social networks will replace the old system of traditional families.  Accession, inheritance, primogeniture – all have gone by the wayside as men and women compete equally and children are expected to make it on their own. 
Care for the very young and the elderly is outsourced; and reproduction becomes a luxury good. Have children only if you feel that their benefits outweigh their costs.

There is no doubt that without the family people will still fight, express their ambitions and resentments in other forums, but the special nature of the traditional family – irrevocable responsibility – will be missing. How can one learn proper moral and ethical behavior, explore the dimensions of love without the constraints of family?  Maturity only comes by banging your head against the wall built by disciplinarian parents.  It is no wonder why Freud was so widely accepted.  He knew, like Shakespeare, that the family is the be-all and end-all of human enterprise.  Understanding the complexes, resentments, repressed sexuality, and personal ambitions of his patients – frustrations and dreams that were forged in the crucible of the family – was the only way to understand them.

One does not form a family expressly to mature and grow; but that surely is perhaps the most important by-product.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Certainty–Why We All Seem To Need It But We Really Don’t

The older I get, the less I am certain about anything; and the less I seem to mind.  I am not convinced that there is a God, but don’t worry about it. I definitely am not persuaded that privatizing the country from east to west will work miracles for the poor and restore America’s economic might; nor am I sure that interventionist government programs will do anything to right the listing ship.  I am not at all certain that life begins at conception, but am willing to consider it. In fact I am not sure that we exist at all; and we may be only the bad dreams of an alien intelligence. Most theories about parallel universes, dark wormholes sucking one universe into another are simply speculations.  No one can ever be sure about the origins of the universe, but given the infinity of everything, the most cockamamie theory sounds every bit as plausible as those coming out of The Center for Theoretical Science at Princeton. 

Recently I have become especially interested in history – Southern history in particular – and have been surprised to learn that the Choctaws and the Chickasaws fought alongside Andrew Jackson, had a thriving middle class, and dined on European pottery; but despite their loyalty and European ways were unceremoniously shipped to Western lands across the Mississippi like any other redskin.

Slavery was far more complex than I ever realized.  It was a going economic system, the product of Southern enterprise, land, and class; and one which could not have existed without Portuguese traders, Arab wholesalers, and African tribal chiefs.

Reconstruction was either a principled program of devoutly abolitionist Northerners, or a punitive attempt to bring the South to heel and finish the job Sherman had started.  The only certainty is that these events happened.  The rest – determination of historical antecedents, assignment of cause and/or guilt, and the role of social, economic, and cultural factors – is up for debate.

While slavery is now universally condemned as an immoral deprivation of human rights, it wasn’t always so. Without slavery the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of Greece and Rome, and the palaces of Persepolis never would have been built. The brutal treatment of slaves resulted from the belief – common at least through the end of the 19th century – that some races were inferior.  Not even the most callous and indifferent Portuguese slaver would have thrown hundreds of Africans in the stinking hold of the ship, bound them in irons, and tossed them overboard when they were sick and dying, if he had felt a common humanity with them. 

Whenever one starts down a historical trail, it never ends.  Certainties – if there indeed ever were any – fade and disappear the farther back one looks. How, for example, could one say absolutely, with rock-solid conviction, that our European ancestors were morally depraved, and lacking in any sense of Christian compassion and human decency because they engaged in slavery? 

Was it right to label the ancient Greeks and Romans, the founders of Western enlightened civilization and the discoverers of philosophy, science, military strategy, poetry, and government administration, moral reprobates because of slavery?

Does the pitiless treatment of American Indians by the US Government in the 1800s deserve perpetual calumny?  It was, after all, done within the same social and moral context of 19th century that condoned slavery.  The Indians were an inferior, savage race, and removing them for Christian farmers and ranchers was logical and unquestioned. 

Looking at this particular period of history it is hard to understand why Jefferson and his successors were so driven by Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny.  Why weren’t they satisfied with the rich fertile lands of the Tidewater and the Ohio plains; or the safe and deep harbors of the North?  Expansionism seems to be the rule of history not the exception.  Every civilization, great or small, has always been insistent on extending its perimeters.  Rome in its heyday controlled all of the known world and never stopped until it had reached the sea.  Roman generals had always had trouble with the uncivilized barbaric and pesky German tribes, but other than that, complete domination.

Genghis Khan never gave halting his Mongol hordes a second thought. They thundered out of the steppes east and west until their empire was even bigger than that of Rome.

Therefore, if desire for new territory, and the urge to continuously expand protective perimeters is a very human trait, then we cannot really be too harsh in our judgment of Andrew Jackson or Jefferson.

Few historians are absolutely certain about the causes of war.  The jury is still out as to whether the American Civil War was necessary at all.  There is significant if not compelling evidence that slavery would have eventually ended because of the rapid industrialization of and economic pressures from the North.  An agrarian, class-based economic system based on a questionable economic premise and with a perpetually restive work force could not have lasted for long against the disciplined, free-labor, laissez-faire capitalism of the North. 

The causes of the War of 1812 are far more murky.  It was all about the impressment of American sailors by the British, the story goes, but most historians agree that it was really a Second Revolutionary War – one final battle to rid the British once and for all from American territory. Or was it about trade?  Was it necessary at all, and is that question even valid given the newly muscular America of the turn of the century?

In short, other than death and taxes, it is hard to be certain about anything.  To complicate matters further new research has shown that most human memory is nothing more than a series of ‘fill-ins’.  What we remember is no more than cobbled fragments of what we once may have seen, stories that Auntie Angie told us, and what we have twisted to suit our psychological needs. It never happened the way we remember it at all.

Studies have been done to show that witnesses of a crime rarely report the event as it happened, but as they thought it happened.  They made the alleged perpetrator black instead of white because of prejudice.  They saw a gun barrel poked out the window because that’s what gangstas did. 

We cannot be certain about the past because memories and historical reconstructions are all subjective in the end.  Everyone uses ‘facts’ to bolster their own argument, and it is almost impossible to sort out any ‘truth’.  As importantly, it is impossible to be certain about the moral rightness of any past action, given the influence of social, demographic, cultural, and economic factors and the context of history.

Which brings us to the ultimate question – why are we all so in need of certainty?  When the question of the origins of life are so mixed up in religion, faith, science, and politics, how can anyone be certain of when it begins? Pro-life advocates will bomb abortion clinics, intimidate all clients who attempt to enter them; and will threaten and even murder doctors who perform the procedure on the grounds that hundreds of ‘lives’ will be saved.  Murder is morally defensible. Progressives are no less adamant in their defense of women and their right to choose. A woman’s right to control her own body is sacrosanct, inviolable, and permanent.  Yet, who says? Are these progressives certain that they are not taking a human life?

The need for certainty is common and predictable; but unfortunately results in unnecessary conflict and dissension. Most people need certainty like they do a warm coat.  Life is cold, harsh, and often brutal; and at the very least a horribly complicated tangle of competing ideas and notions.  It is better to sit by the fire, content and confident in the certainty of God and country, than to do a St. Vitus’ dance of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other debate. 

The other equally compelling reason for certainty is that one can fly it like a banner, hold it up as a standard, and wear it like an emblem.  True, absolute, unwavering, unquestioned, resolute belief is the basis for crusades for justice, abolition of social inequality, civil rights, the environment, and the life of the unborn child.

Not long ago few people doubted the existence of God or his influence over human events.  Society’s rules were set, respected, and followed.  Life had few complexities –. up at dawn, in the fields until sunset, feed the chickens, eat, and go to bed. Science was basic. The planets revolved around the sun which came up every morning.  Certainty was an unquestioned fact of life, not a questionable trait.

Those who live happily with uncertainty have no need to prove or display conviction; but they are often branded as morally indecisive and spineless. Given the troubles in the world, it is reprehensible to sit idly by. There are no sidelines in today’s world.

This insistence on certainty is very Christian and supremely American. There is one aspect of Hinduism and Buddhism that best characterizes these religions - the belief in the vanity of desire.  The Western quest to know everything, to conclude right and wrong, and  to impose convictions on others is not only arrogant, but regressive.  The only purpose of life – spiritual enlightenment – is deflected by this excess of rationality and reason. Only the Judeo-Christian (and Muslim) God demands certainty, obedience, and subscription to his rules.

The next century will finally be one in which certainty loses its hold.  Virtual reality alone, erasing the distinctions between reality and fantasy, will erode certainty’s foundations. When one can never be certain about what is or what isn’t, the quest for past certainties, moral certitude, and ‘correct’ judgments will cease. Not only will people say “I don’t know” but “I don’t care” about ‘reality’, facts, and established principle. This is a revolution as profound as any in science.  Life will never be the same.