Today’s New York Times gives us the best possible valediction for the best possible President. There are so many dense golden nuggets of wisdom in both the article about Obama’s reading and the transcript of the interview with him that it’s something of a challenge to choose. All the things I’ve believed about the radiantly mysterious power of stories to promote curiosity, build bridges, foster empathy, and offer escapes into opportunity are stated here in ways that remind us of just how fortunate we were to have eight years of a President who was thoughtful, compassionate, judicious, and deeply intellectual.
In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical “Hamilton”) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and “a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.”
He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak “to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,” but at the same time tell stories about “longing for this better place but also feeling displaced” — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are “steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.”
Mr. Obama says he is hoping to eventually use his presidential center website “to widen the audience for good books” — something he’s already done with regular lists of book recommendations — and then encourage a public “conversation about books.”
“At a time,” he says, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”
In 1993, Maurice Sendak published WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY, a book that took up the crisis of homelessness. The book never sold well, perhaps because it was marketed to children and had the look of a book for children. As Sendak told Stephen Colbert once, “I don’t write for children. I write. And someone comes along and says ‘That’s for children.'”
We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do
Ginia Belafante writes about the new realism in YA fiction, citing works like “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, “The Hate U Give” by Angela Thomas, and “June the Sparrow and the Million-Dollar Penny,” a novel about an orphaned girl forced to move from the Dakota to South Dakota. She adds:
In some sense these new realist novels are even grittier than their predecessors from the 1970s, even though children, especially in New York where crime rates were so high, faced greater perils then. The classic young-adult novel of that period typically dealt with characters managing the fracture of American family life — divorce, a mother’s new boyfriend and so on — but those characters most often enjoyed the comforts of middle-class life. Norma Klein’s Manhattan was as sophisticated as any Woody Allen would devise. Children today may finally be resisting the elusive insulation we crave for them.
It’s fascinating to me that we give children agency, suggesting that they set the agenda when it comes to YA fiction. Possible, but it’s the adults who are writing the books. I’m not persuaded that we “crave” the idea of protecting them from the hard facts once they hit the teen years.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, is featured in the NYT, and he tells us about what drives him to make art: “The mission that I feel like I have is to figure out how you can tell the truth about how tragic and unfair life actually is without destroying hope.”
After the death of his sixteen-year-old son, Lin-Manuel Miranda sent him a demo recording of “It’s Quiet Uptown”–“For me, the beautiful thing about ‘Quiet Uptown’ is, it serves a ritualistic function—it takes us into the grief, and then it takes us out of it. And there’s nothing, there’s no other ritual that I know of, that can do that for me.”
I’m reminded of Lionel Trilling’s words, on the occasion of Robert Frost’s 85th birthday:
“And I hope you will not think it graceless of me that on your birthday I have made you out to be a poet who terrifies. When I began to speak, I called your birthday Sophoclean, and that word has controlled everything I said about you. Like you, Sophocles lived to a great age, writing well; and like you, Sophocles was the poet his people loved most. . . . I think that they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life; they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort.”
For many years, I pondered the need for the humanities. And Keats provided the answer when he wrote about negative capability: “Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” And, after reading Stephen Greenblatt on how Shakespeare explains the 2016 elections, I feel more sure than ever that we need what Shakespeare possessed so enormously.
For his theatrical test case, Shakespeare chose an example closer to home: the brief, unhappy reign in 15th-century England of King Richard III. Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.
From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character’s weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.
“The Wind in the Willows’’ by Kenneth Grahame, narrated by Michael Hordern (Audible)
This is another truly marvelous audiobook for younger children. There are many versions but none better than that read by the late British stage and film actor Hordern, who voiced the character of Badger in the 1980s film and television series. This is a completely perfect reading, delightful in the very way that the book is delightful and a wonderful way to while away the time.
While away the time? Why is it that books for children are so often positioned as great time-wasters?
A PIG ON a trampoline goes flying toward the screen, his sizable rear end smashing against the glass. A sloth doing yoga ties himself up in knots, leaving his face, as he laments, perilously close to his butt. A cute bunny unexpectedly poops and shakes his tail at the camera.
Moviegoers tuned into this summer’s film slate are well familiar with these animals’ backsides, which arise triumphantly at the ends of ads for the animated films “Angry Birds,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” and “Secret Life of Pets,” respectively. What’s going on here is rather subtle. OK, not the jokes. And not the alignment between form and content evident in so many tails appearing at the tail end of ads. No, what’s subtle is the message all these butt jokes communicate: These movies are for boys.
Yesterday I attended the Cambridge premier of Roger Ross Williams’ remarkable documentary Life, Animated. The film tells the story of Owen Suskind’s jailbreak–that’s pretty much how his father Ron Suskind puts it when he describes the challenges faced by two parents of getting their son back after his diagnosis of autism.
Life, Animated compresses the arduous journey into under two hours, as we watch poignant home movies from the BD era (before the diagnosis) with the rough-and-tumble play of father and son, witness the efforts to find the right schools and counselors, learn about the transformative moment when Owen repeats a version of “It’s just your voice” from the Disney films he has been watching, and then see Owen come back to his family through the words and emotions he has learned from watching Disney films.
It’s a film that ends up animating us, rewiring our brains and rearranging our senses. And it lets us look inside the minds of others in compelling ways–suddenly we see what they see, feel what they feel as we discover how the symbolic helps us navigate reality. The genius of including an animation of Owen Suskind’s own story about sidekicks gives the film a self-reflexive quality that mirrors the documentary and meditates on it yet also has its own emotive power. Suddenly we see the links with Disney’s Peter Pan and its lost boys, Pinocchio and a father’s desire to animate a boy carved from wood, Beauty and the Beast and the transformative power of love and compassion.
In the Q and A after the film, Owen and his parents were on stage in what I can only describe as an incandescent moment. It felt as if they had all just emerged from the screen to enter real life and remind us that what happens in art can often be more real than what we experience in life. It’s what Paul Ricoeur refers to as “ontological vehemence”–that moment when what is happening in your head is larger than life and twice as natural.
“Who in the world gets to decide what is a meaningful life?” Cornelia Suskind said at one point (I’m paraphrasing), quoting her husband. We are homo significans and what we do, almost as a reflex, is construct meaning, compulsively and carefully. And sometimes we create meanings, often through art, that change us in dramatic ways. Neil Gaiman famously told us what to do when life throws us a curveball: “Make good art.” (Below an excerpt from his Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts.) Owen is doing that. His parents are doing that. Roger Ross Williams is doing that.
In some ways, Owen’s story is a story of stories. It corrals not just Disney films, but also all of the stories behind the standardized Disney versions of “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and so on. It’s all the narratives that made the Suskinds who they are today, and that includes the myths of Prometheus and Pygmalion, figures who worked their magic by breathing life into their creations.
I recently translated Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and was struck by this passage about stories as akin to chiseled artifacts, objects that acquire their beauty through layering, and Life, Animated is a perfect example of “the layering of a variety of retellings”:
Paul Valéry tells us about perfect objects in nature, flawless pearls, full-bodied, mature wines, and truly complex creatures. He describes them as the “exquisite products of a long chain of causes that resemble each other.” The cumulative effect of such causes has temporal limits only when perfection has been attained. “Nature’s patient way of working,” Valéry continues, “was once a model for humans. Miniatures, ivory carvings crafted to the point of perfection, stones perfectly polished and engraved, lacquered objects or paintings in which thin, transparent layers are put on top of each other—all of these products of sustained effort required sacrifice and have rapidly vanished. The day and age is long gone in which time does not matter, Today people no longer work on anything that does not allow shortcuts.” Today we are witnessing the evolution of the short story, which is no longer connected to oral traditions and no longer allows for the gradual accumulation of thin, transparent sheets that capture the most accurate picture of how a perfect story emerges from the layering of a variety of retellings. * * *
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Well, actually more like Disney. Think of the allegory of aging in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Remember how the Wicked Queen drinks her chemical cocktail and transforms before our eyes from a charismatic beauty into a hunchbacked hag? “My hands!” she shrieks as they turn gnarly while her fingernails grow into claws. “My voice!” she cries with a terrifying cackle. “To whiten my hair, a scream of fright,” she had intoned, and even her underground ravens recoil in fear when they see the “disguise.”
Here’s Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic on the “red woman” in Game of Thrones:
Melisandre always seemed to harbor a secret, and now we know it’s that she, like someone in a Catfish episode or like many witches of centuries-old folklore, is secretly saggy. Only Thrones could pull off precisely this kind of fun, meta twist. After the show has spent so long jamming spears through handsome young prince heads in order to prove that it’s not reliant on fairy-tale tropes, it can occasionally shock simply by serving up some of the oldest magic tricks in the storybooks. What are we watching, after all, if not what the thoroughly demented Brothers’ Grimm might create on an HBO budget?
The female body turned grotesque with age: only something like that can compete with the blood and gore ritually served up by Game of Thrones.
I’m reminded of an incident in another cultural zone–not the fairy-tale world but a dystopic novel. In 1984, Winston writes in his diary about a memory that has been “tormenting” him.
It had got to be written down, it had got to be confessed. What he had suddenly seen in the lamplight was that the woman was OLD. The paint was plastered so thick on her face that it looked as though it might crack like a cardboard mask. There were streaks of white in her hair; but the truly dreadful detail was that her mouth had fallen a little open, revealing nothing except a cavernous blackness. She had no teeth at all.
He wrote hurriedly, in scrabbling handwriting:
When I saw her in the light she was quite an old woman, fifty years old at least. But I went ahead and did it just the same.
He pressed his fingers against his eyelids again. He had written it down at last, but it made no difference. The therapy had not worked. The urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice was as strong as ever.
Cougar culture may have changed the number (70 is the new 50), but the crone continues to embody our anxieties about aging, and there is nothing more frightening that the sight of her withered breasts and sagging flesh.
Killing the Dames(a related piece I wrote about a year ago after watching Vee Parker run down in Orange is the New Black)
These days, we are still following the advice of the French playwright Victorine Sardou to torture the woman, just as we have never stopped heeding the words of Edgar Allan Poe about the death of a beautiful woman as the most “poetical topic in the world.” Sometimes these young women are victims of ritual murder, as in “True Detective.” Sometimes they appear as narcotized teens at the mercy of drug lords. Often we see them in a basement, bound and gagged, struggling against their kidnappers.
Now a new casualty seems to be joining up with these victims: the middle-aged, matronly types, whose messy, repulsive deaths challenge us to wonder what has changed in the moral calculus of cinematic productions. The second season of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix ends with Vee Parker, sprawled on the road, her vacant eyes staring out at us. “Always so rude, that one,” intones Rosa, an inmate on the lam who is herself terminally ill. After slamming her van into Vee, Rosa leaves the corpse on the road, with barely a glance into the rear-view mirror. As “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio, Rosa morphs back into a stunningly beautiful young woman, embracing adventure on the wide-open highway. Rosa’s victim is a grotesquely exaggerated form of the “bad mother,” an archetype that haunts fairy tales as stepmother, ogre, or witch. A drug dealer who preys on orphans and recruits them to “connect” on inner-city streets, Vee is a woman whose nurturing gestures mask behavior that is deceptive, exploitative, and cruel.
While the body count in HBO’s “The Leftovers” is unusually high, we witness only a few disappearances in a series based on the premise that 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes, with no messy corpses left behind. By contrast, the show turns up close and personal for the deaths of two members of the Guilty Remnant, a spooky cult group whose members wear white and ostentatiously smoke in pairs while stalking people they do not like (meaning almost everyone who tries to get on with their lives in the picturesque Mapleton).
Gladys, middle-aged, bespectacled, and overweight, is the first to die in a protracted stoning scene that begins episode five. The camera lingers on her bloodied features as one rock after another batters her face and smashes her skull while she pleads with her captors.
“Kevin, you can’t kill me,” Patti, the heavyset, matronly leader of the Guilty Remnant, tells Mapleton’s beleaguered police chief. Picking up a piece of broken glass, she calls out Kevin’s name and plunges the shard into her neck, cutting her throat in an act designed to demonstrate the senselessness of life. The massive blood-soaked body dressed in white at the end of episode eight builds an arc back to Gladys and her stoning, with both scenes offering up spectacles that point us to the womb as much as to the tomb.
The punishment of dames, domestic and demonic, is nothing new. For years, Disney Studios capitalized on the excesses of fairy-tale villains, staging the death of heartless dowagers (in Snow White and the SevenDwarfs, the wicked queen plunges headlong from a cliff) and monstrous monarchs (in The Little Mermaid, Ursula is impaled by the mast of a ship). But its resurgence on screen in adult entertainments is nothing short of astonishing at a time when the headlines report the beheadings of male journalists, news websites routinely offer slide shows displaying the corpses of men and boys in combat zones, and stories featuring wounded warriors dominate magazine culture.
Our on-screen entertainments rarely replay real-life anxieties. Instead they haunt us in ways that are often errant and unpredictable. In a culture that has renounced the ideal of beauty, the beautiful dead woman of Edgar Allan Poe’s fantasies may now have moved into middle age. Instead of languorous sleeping beauties, we are faced with the grotesquely mutilated corpses of aging women. Once upon a time, grandmother had to perish in older versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” for successive generations to survive and flourish—granny’s blood and flesh are consumed by the girl before she escapes from the wolf. Now our freshly imagined warrior women may need some blood sacrifices beyond the immediate targets of their revenge.