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second-best since Cantor

Month: March, 2017

Cubes or GTFO.

My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.

My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —

Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.

So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.

SO!

For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.

Bombs away!

Where are the Dems?

Congressional Republicans imploded this week, which is cute, but where are the Dems? Why aren’t they pushing an alternative bill right now? Why didn’t they have such a bill ready to go, something limited in scope, with fixes to Obamacare which appeal to GOP reps and will actually do good for American citizens?

I understand the desire to play the Party of No — it worked wonders for unprincipled cowards like Mitch McConnell, and only cost everyone else in the country — but why not press their current tactical advantage to actually do some good? Find some conservative reps, pick a half-dozen cost-cutting measures, offer to share credit for the bill, and start working hard to restore Americans’ faith in Congress. Trump himself doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about the actual content of healthcare legislation — why not take a crack at getting a bipartisan modification to the ACA to his desk? Call it ‘repair and redesign’ or something to palliate the fundies, but try something, or this cycle of ideological turtling and self-segregation will continue to deepen.

I know ‘Medicare for all’ is too much to ask for, but surely someone in Washington is capable of thinking beyond the Sunday chat shows…

Cognitive dissonance on Trump’s ‘dealmaking’ persona.

Quoth Politico:

Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.

“Forget about the little shit,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”

The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little shit” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.

“We’re talking about one-fifth of our economy,” a member told me afterward.

Filled with hope once again, Freedom Caucus members were once again promptly disappointed. This meeting was yet another “take one for the team” seminar. The atmosphere was friendly, and the president had the group laughing with irrelevant riffs and stories of negotiations past, but it became clear, as soon as he made the “little shit” comment, that no serious changes were going to be made, because the president didn’t have sufficient command of the policy details to negotiate what would or would not be realistic for Ryan to shepherd through the House.

Trump has never shown any particular abilities as a businessman — he’s a TV/tabloid performer whose job is to act the part of the dealmaking shark, and he’s paid handsomely to propagate that lie. Everyone knows that, right? Everyone I know is up on the salient bits of his life story: the repeated bankruptcies, the tax evasions, the Russian bailouts, the banks’ refusal to do business with him, ‘the only guy in history who went broke running a casino,’ etc. He’s a poseur who’d be broke in a ditch if it weren’t for Dad’s money, and later Putin’s.

Doesn’t everyone know all this? Why do gossip rags like Politico keep giving us Trump stories whose frame is ‘famed dealmaker finds Washington is more complicated than he thought,’ when he’s not famed for making deals, he’s famed for being rich?

But of course, my own cognitive dissonance isn’t as widely shared as I think/hope. A surprising chunk of the American population persists in its belief that the man knows what he’s doing: the folks who watched The Apprentice (I never have, alas) and believed it, who bought into the election-year narrative of Trump as outsider ‘swamp drainer,’ who seriously think of Trump as a master businessman, who voted for the man out of the belief that he’d bring some good ol’ capitalist efficiency to a dysfunctional federal government. I have to keep reminding myself that millions of people continue to think — against all evidence, all sense — that Trump’s doing a hell of a job.

They’re wrong, they’ve been suckered, and for years it’s been easy to see through the con and know how it would end. (And never ever forget that the Republican Party profited handsomely in the short term from the gulling of so many millions of media-addicted marks, at enormous long-term cost to all involved. This isn’t just about Trump; the Democrats are an unprincipled disaster but this particular cluster of lies only works in today’s Republican Party.) But you can’t tell anyone anything. We have to see and hear for ourselves; ask Thomas. With any luck, this first bout of cowardice and stupidity will enlighten a few hundred thousand voters, a couple million, and the inevitable selloff will begin sooner than anticipated.

I got the election outcome wrong (having denied the evidence of my own eyes), but I stand by this prediction: the GOP will turn on Trump the instant it’s politically expedient. Last year I figured that was 2019, but as the reptilian Mr Manafort offers to testify before Nunes and Schiff, I wonder if I wasn’t insufficiently optimistic (pessimistic?) to the tune of roughly two years…


The funniest part of the AHCA debacle, for me — the only funny part really — is that I agree 100% with Trump’s impatient dismissal of the House GOP caucus. The man’s never had a real job; he’s been his own boss all his life, in a flat organization which has allowed him to involve himself in whatever aspects of the business he wishes, to whatever degree he likes, solely according to his whims. He’s contemptible, alright? Yugely so. But he didn’t write a bill that would kick 20ish million people off the insurance rolls, and he didn’t insist on making the bill worse, deadlier, as a condition of his backing it. Trump doesn’t have principles or basic intelligence, but the House GOP is full of genuinely hateful guys. When Trump’s gone, our pseudoconservative ‘permanent opposition’ party will still be around. Trump is, in a sense, the easier problem to solve.

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

Four things to read.

Not ‘news,’ still timely:

B.R. Myers on North Korean propaganda, internal and external:

It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.

Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.

Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) on motte-and-bailey arguments:

Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along…

John Holbo’s (nearly 15-years-old!!) critique of David Frum’s conservatism:

The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.

Daniel Davies’s ‘One Minute MBA,’, which may possess more value-per-word than any other blogpost yet written:

Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal [sic] waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.

Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The summary enthusiastic recommendation first: This is the best ‘children’s show’ I’ve ever seen, and will move adults (as it moved me) in surprising ways.

At first it looks like yet another cheaply produced genre pastiche on the order of Ninjago. (See below.) Certainly the premise is familiar enough: magical boy-of-destiny returns to the world to master the four elements and defeat evil, aided by a couple of plucky kids. And the pan-Asian kung fu pastiche is dangerous ground for a predominantly white cast of voice actors to tread, and…

…but then the show’s first scene sees the competent polar-tribal female lead (Katara) scold her competent brother (Sokka) for sexism in as many words, and while ‘progressive’ means something more than box-checking if it means anything at all, that’s a hell of a way to announce your intentions as storytellers. But that’s only politics. This is what matters: the jokes are funny, and the characters look and talk like people, and there’s a magical boy in an iceberg who talks like a boy, plus he’s got a flying six-legged platypus-bison of some kind (‘pretty cool’ as they say) to which he has a touchingly intense relationship, and when they travel to the siblings’ village the old woman looks and talks like an old woman rather than The Old Woman, and then the Fire Nation arrives looking like Nazi Samurai…

And there’s the magic, the ‘bending’: the ‘waterbenders’ practice a recognizable magical martial art, the ‘firebenders’ a distinctive art of their own, and the last ‘airbender’ a kinetic language unique to him — each tribe’s fighting/magic style a loving tribute to an existing martial arts tradition, each embodying in form and movement the character-as-destiny which is the standard premise of this sort of story. Because ‘bending’ is central to the story, it needs to be more than four-colour kickpunching, and it is — the most surprising and impressive thing about the show, from the beginning, is the subtle transformation of its bog-standard four-way elemental schema from storytelling convenience to philosophical argument.

In other words, notwithstanding the overacted teenage villain Prince Zuko (who (thank Christ) gets interesting pretty quickly), Avatar‘s two-part opener immediately dispels any worry that it’s just a checklist wuxia pastiche, and projects an unusually thoughtful and humane spirit, which marks it as both psychologically and politically sophisticated. I’d say ‘…for a kid’s show’ but I don’t think it’s necessary — Avatar refers time and again not only to Star Wars and The Matrix, as expected, but also (more tellingly) to Miyazaki’s elegiac fantasies; and the writing shows a subtle sensitivity to Avatar‘s pan-Asian source mythologies and folktales. At times it seems intentionally to court comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which went off the air less than two years before Avatar‘s premiere — there’s a clear homage to the canonical Buffy episode ‘The Zeppo’ that warmed my heart. Its creators clearly didn’t think of their show as proscriptively ‘for children,’ nor did they make a corporate ‘all-ages’ entertainment in the disappointing Shrek/Lego Movie/Minions mould; instead of following the constrictive rules of corporate youth-marketed products, Avatar‘s creators obeyed principles which generated both kid-friendly scenarios and believable group dynamics without sacrificing narrative momentum.

Indeed, the 90+ minute final episode, ‘Sozin’s Comet,’ is that rarest of series finales, the ideal end to both deep story and plot-mechanics. My only major complaint about the final season is its focus on romantic pairings at the expense of the dynamic, persnickety relationships which formed throughout the first two years — and my wife, who loved the show and shares this complaint, was particularly irritated by the creators’ choice of final scene and image. (I also disliked the inexplicable repeated use of the word ‘confused’ to mean ‘ambivalent’ and ‘conflicted’ and ‘frustrated’ and ‘preoccupied’; that seemed like the writers’ only obvious lapse of faith in the audience’s intelligence, or else a failure of nerve.) But ‘Sozin’s Comet’ is still an absolute triumph, and it would be even if it only brought three long-simmering conflicts to genuinely suspenseful climaxes, paid off a bit of deep ‘mythology,’ and delivered an extended knock-down, drag-out magical kung fu fight between two of the storyworld’s most powerful beings. Its real achievement is greater than that: it pays off the show’s central storyline by introducing new ‘worldbuilding’ information in a way that seems perfectly natural, inevitable, instead of convenient — the final battle echoes every conflict of the preceding three seasons, and its resolution reveals something new about the world of Avatar without violating the art/artist/audience contract.

(The finale also includes a magical island that deliberately conjures (and I think spoofs) the memory of Lost, an overpraised and derivative show whose fatal abstraction and ultimate failure of taste and sense stand as warnings to TV-serial creators. Kudos to my wife for pointing out the Lost resonance.)

Avatar‘s rare coherence and genre-defying sophistication — not to mention its bone-deep commitment to a (let’s say) progressive vision of family and community — are all the more impressive given the show’s occasional formal experiments. One episode makes the non-speaking flying bison its POV character; another is a series of impressionistic vignettes set on the eve of battle; a third uses multiple animation styles to tell a good ol’ Rashomon story. The penultimate episode has the kids watching a play about themselves, performed by a troupe of Fire Nation actors, which takes an eerie turn in its final scenes. But this isn’t cleverness or ostentation: every story about children adventuring in a grownup world draws on the same fundamental dynamic tension, whereby the kids’ clarifying (naive) vision carries a kind of moral force weighing against their discovery that the world is fiendishly complicated, and adulthood itself is no sin; indeed the idea of sin (of ultimate good and bad) seems less and less believable the more of the world you take into account (cf. recent YA examples: Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Star Wars prequels). As the world of Avatar deepens and variegates, the range of the heroes’ experiences is reflected stylistically, formally, on top of the actual ‘content’ of those adventures — assuming that distinction has meaning in the first place.

I really can’t say enough about Avatar. It came into our lives at just the right moment. Every day I wake up in a country whose hugely unpopular president is a bellicose semiliterate imbecile afraid of his own shadow; Avatar has allowed me to escape to a story that isn’t simple or safe or free from evil, but is filled with humanity and love, truthfully — that is to say, beautifully — told. Above all, I’m grateful to have been able to share it with my six-year-old son.

He loved it, by the way.


Ninjago note

Ninjago was the biggest casualty of our Avatar experience. I quite liked it at the time, as a light entertainment aimed at kids and their interested/hovering parents. But I’m now convinced it’s a somewhat cynical knockoff of Avatar, with none of the earlier show’s depth or grace. The upcoming Ninjago film looks miserable — more ‘meta’ comedy in the vein of The Lego Movie, ugh — and the central figure of Lloyd Garmadon the Green Ninja, once just an underwritten plot-necessity, now feels to me like the worst sort of storytelling laziness. (Aang the Avatar is Hamlet in comparison.) If they make another season of the show we’ll presumably watch it, and I’ll presumably enjoy the zany antics and genre spoofs, but now I’ve seen firsthand how much more could have been done with the same raw materials. It’s lost its lustre. Blessed are they who do not see, but still believe, etc., etc.; on the other hand, better late than never.

One-line reviews/summaries.

Literary Theory (Terry Eagleton)

The whole history of literary theory has led inexorably to the literary theory of Terry Eagleton. –Terry Eagleton, convincingly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson)

Mustn’t slow down or the Seventies will catch you.

Seinfeld (Larry David et al.)

Apparently in the 80s and 90s everyone was inexplicably wealthy and Jewish and everyone was terrible, and the reason your idiot friends hate the final episode isn’t so much that it isn’t funny as that it was the first moment when David et al. refused to cut away from the severed heads and gouts of blood.

Logan (James Mangold et al.)

A perfectly fine latter-day Western is accidentally marketed as a superhero film; hijinks ensue.

Deadpool

Only in our era of absolute myopic cowardice could this intermittently funny movie for scared 20something boys be called ‘risky’ or ‘adult.’

Sidenote re: Deadpool

The joke about International Women’s Day (pegging) was, in my mind, the moment it went from ‘forgettable’ to ‘contemptible’; YMMV.

Logan.

  1. I suspect Hugh Jackman is the last screen Wolverine; I hope so. You can only ring changes on that character so many times, within the confines of the ‘tentpole actioner’ as they say. Jackman grew into the role, doing solid work even in terrible films, and created — pardon me — an iconic screen character; he deserves the chance to bring the curtain down. The fact that whoever’s making those alternate-timeline X-Men movies won’t cast anyone else in the role is a real compliment to him. (That said, I wondered a couple of times what Mel Gibson could’ve done as old Logan — it was the beard that set me off, but Jackman’s fellow Aussie is still, I think, better at communicating Logan‘s mix of pain, confusion, resignation, misanthrophy, and (lest we forget) feral rage.)
  2. Patrick Stewart deserves an Oscar, not only because he’ll make an excellent speech. He takes a risk here and delivers a flawless performance that owes nothing to the standard language of ‘superhero films’; Jackman does a lot of fighting, as you’d expect of Wolverine, but Stewart is playing a low-key drama about aging ungracefully. I’m reminded of Gielgud’s frail Prospero, and wish I’d seen Stewart’s…
  3. Dafne Keen provides a feral take on Stranger Things‘s ‘Eleven.’ She’s every inch as good as her costars, especially in the film’s many intensely quiet moments. So’s Stephen Merchant as a run-down Caliban, who must’ve loved playing scenes with the naughty Mr Grant. And though Boyd Holbrook’s role is a bit of a clunker, he does his best to run off with the film. Everyone onscreen is in top form. As someone else points out: a lot of excellent screen actors pop up in cape’n’cowl films with nothing to do, and Logan shows how deep you can go once you’ve established the characters and ensemble and are no longer beholden to the almighty ‘mythology.’ (By all accounts Logan diverges completely from its ostensible source material, profitably cynical hack writer Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.)
  4. Logan is a Western (no points for figuring that out), and makes heartbreaking use of footage and dialogue from Shane. Yes there’s much talk — predictable, since film critics are almost all hacks, even the ‘names’ — of Logan ‘transcending’ the comic-book film and ‘defying genre conventions,’ etc., but for God’s sake ignore all that chatter. It’s squarely within the conventions of a different sort of story that’s fallen out of favour with (young) film audiences, and it will be overrated by critics as a result. This is an important thing to understand about critics and tastemakers: when a media text that appears, or is expected, to belong to one genre is revealed to belong to another, they flip out, because in that case they have something to do. Sci-fi story that’s actually a domestic melodrama? Gush. Fight movie doubles as anticapitalist protest? Gush. Surprisingly gory superhero film is really about old people? Gush. (Star Wars meets The Dirty Dozen? Gush of relief.) It would be a very good (if somewhat old-fashioned) Western if it didn’t have superheroes in it, its iconography smartly utilized by James Mangold et al., but once those adamantium claws go snikt there’s no stopping the fanthusiasm, and critical perspective collapses.
  5. As ‘awesome’ violence is to comixxx fanboys, schematic genre-crossing is to film critics.
  6. I cried at the end, during the eulogy (it doesn’t spoil anything, really, to suggest that there’ll be a eulogy, though I won’t say whose). I had an intense feeling of having come through something, and I can’t tell whether I mourned the character or the franchise, which is a little disgusting. Jackman’s been Wolverine for, what, twenty years? That’s a long time to live with an idea. But during the other obvious tearjerker moment, not only didn’t I cry, I didn’t feel much of anything — it felt like a necessary step in the narrative progression of a dark Western film. ‘But this is a big deal in a superhero movie!’ went my inner nerd, and I began to wonder whether that voice, too, needed to die in order that everyone else might glimpse transcendence.
  7. The idea that every aesthetic judgment about a superhero film must be conducted in terms only of other superhero films is cowardice. If they’re good films, they’re good even with masked vigilantes in them, and we shouldn’t use the words ‘guilty pleasure’ to mask our interest. If they can’t hold up to that standard — if, for instance, your connection to Logan and Logan is nostalgia for a line of commercial products, and you’re just better off watching Mangold’s riveting 3:10 to Yuma — then why do we bother? Because they’re popular? Logan‘s quite a good film on its own terms, and that’s enough to justify the price of your matinee ticket, but the gushing has to do with its status as a ‘genre-defying’ popcorn flick, which shows how deep the rot has gone. One critic approvingly points out that the heroes fail, at one crucial juncture, to drive over a chicken-wire fence; they get snarled in it instead, and have to back out. Funny, no? Clever, no? Honest, no? And so we must deduce that no superhero film has ever been honest before, because we’re goldfish forgetting the other side of our tank.
  8. Lemme put it this way: I saw the movie yesterday and can vividly remember much or most of it now, nearly twenty-four hours later — but only because I’m trying. Honestly, until I sat down to write about it, it had slipped from my mind, like so many other good movies.

Pilgrim’s halting progress.

One manifestation of my catastrophic indisicipline is the fact that I’ve always got like ten or twenty half-finished books in progress. Some samples from the fiction shelf:

Blood Meridian. A fantasy apocalypse starring a doomed boy and the Devil. The description of the judge as ‘clever’ raised the hairs on the back of my neck — strong Riddley Walker flashback, ‘Mr Clevver’ yes yes — and the embedded narrative of the massacre in the volcanic crater is horrifying despite containing almost no actual violence. I say ‘fantasy’ in the familiar sense: this is a Dying Earth story about black magic, and a sharper critic than me could make hay by reading McCarthy’s vision against Stephen King’s (anti)parallel apocalypse The Stand, with Flagg standing for Holden. I’m reading a couple of chapters a night, because a boring logistical matter keeps me from falling asleep with…

The Honourable Schoolboy. Le Carré’s sequel to Tinker Tailor represents a big leap in ambition for him over his early work; he plays games with narrative time and voice which give the book an unexpected intimacy, as if he were letting me in on the story’s own private thoughts. Le Carré’s rendering of George Smiley refers repeatedly to Smiley’s ‘myth,’ which (paradoxically) further humanizes him: in Tinker Tailor he achieved wonders beyond any expectation of him, while in Schoolboy he’s measured against his own idea, and at times found wanting. And the occasional narratorial leaps forward heighten this effect by pointing out Smiley’s misjudgments and weaknesses, so that an otherwise inexorable march toward heroic confrontation (I bet the ‘good guys’ win) is coloured with thoroughly modern ambivalence. A little more than halfway through, I can feel the noose beginning to tighten — I now fear for Westerby’s safety, and should have done from the beginning — and I’d be falling asleep reading it if it weren’t an ebook on our old iPad Mini, which interferes with my sleep even with nighttime colours. Hellfire!

Robert Graves’s Greek Myths. Graves was mad, let’s say that right out; my teacher Professor Thorburn warned me not to take his monomaniacal speculations too much to heart, and I’ve read enough of The White Goddess to see his weirdnesses coming. But this long collection (I’m halfway through after months of nighttime sampling) is ace, the resolutely deflationary footnotes no less than the at times misshapen renderings of the myths themselves. Graves’s laconic synoptic insertions (‘others say it was not Athene who slaughtered the oxen but an eagle sent by Zeus; or it was Poseidon who raped the entire family to win a wager with’ some other mad god, etc.) underscore the alienness of the myths, their oddly unstorylike quality of reflecting a foreign (group-)consciousness without any effort at communicability, translation. They were never meant to be read, certainly not at spatial or temporal distance, and Graves barely treats them as stories in his footnotes — for him they’re historical evidence to be interpreted by a kind of literary forensics, and you’d never know from the text whether he thought them exciting or bewildering or beautiful. That lack of apology, of any framing that might ease the imaginative abrasion, is wonderfully alienating. Graves is the High Weirdness uncut and unfiltered, baby — and reading him before and after Tolkien is, of course, perfect.

Wizard and Glass. I got through the insufferable train-riddles portion of this Stephen King novel, the fourth volume in his Dark Tower series, only by a herculean effort of will; now we head deep into story-within-a-story mode, to hear about Roland’s first love and such, but my problem with the Dark Tower books — rapidly diminishing returns — kicked in roughly 1.5 books ago, and has not gone away. The Gunslinger is superb, Drawing of the Three is very good on very different terms, and in a world where Viriconium exists, I’m just not convinced I need this series as much as I once did. Still, I’m intrigued by post-accident King’s turn toward metafiction (a term he detests) and self-conscious continuity, and am curious about the last three volumes. At any rate, King’s books fly by; I’ll finish this one in a few months.

Illuminatus! I started over last year, got most of the way through the first volume, and stalled out. Yes to libertinism, yes to groovy occult psychedelia, but Wilson and Shea just weren’t great writers, no way around it. And at this point I’ve been exposed to so much of this kind of nonsense that the ‘guerrilla epistemology’ schtick doesn’t have the impact it had when I fell for this series in high school — for one thing I’ve finally read a couple volumes of the ‘Montauk mythos,’ a less artful or funny or cynical (and much less benign) specimen of breathless dot-connecting eliptonic horseshit. Oh! and Thomas Pynchon himself, who’s better at everything involving the written word than RAW or Shea. Better, come to think of it, than almost everyone who writes in English, and if there’s a reason not to read Illuminatus! it’s the fact that Gravity’s Rainbow is there on the shelf, waiting for a reread of its own…

The founders were people, but The Founders aren’t people.

Idle, irresponsible, testy thoughts, unedited and unfiltered and (to be frank) probably un-thought-through.

Problem: The world of the Founders seems impossibly distant from our own, and Americans are pig-ignorant about our history.

Bad solution: Pretend the Founders were essentially modern Americans, somewhat abstracted perhaps, and try to draw political/cultural lessons from them on those terms. (This is known amongst historians of the era as ‘Founders Chic,’ and is popular for boring reasons — cf. Wall Street reporter Ron Chernow’s laudatory book on Hamilton, or the current backlash against Thomas Jefferson.)

Better solution: Treat them as fallible human beings while acknowledging the historical specificity of their time and place — i.e. maintain their status as historical figures rather than mythic characters.

In my family we’ve been listening basically nonstop to Hamilton, which is a great success on its own terms but seems, based on what little guilt-motivated research I’ve done, to be bad history. The play’s full of anachronisms, which don’t bother me because (1) they’re groovy and (2) I’m not a priggish asshole, but the specific recasting of the Hamilton/Jefferson conflict (Hamilton married into a family of slaveowners and himself rented slaves, yet he gets a number of abolitionist applause lines; Jefferson’s genuinely radical democratic ideals are laughed off as aristocratic hypocrisy) damages the history for no damn reason except, I think, to pander to Miranda’s ‘progressive’ audience.

(Testy aside about Miranda’s own background goes here, but I can’t be bothered.)

It’s dangerously distorting to portray humans of hundreds of years ago as basically modern in their outlooks — though I can see why you’d do so; no one would give a shit about Alexander Hamilton today if Miranda hadn’t made that choice. It works, and you’ve got to put asses in seats. Hamilton is a multimillion-dollar business. Yet the cost of that distortion is the audience’s cheaply acquired false certainty, which leads to recklessness:

Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, [Chernow] said, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to.

Sadly, no! It just substitutes a fashionable interpretive matrix for, y’know, actual historical understanding, and piggybacks the noble and correct idea that ‘Anything You Can Dream, You Can Be’ on a sugarcoated misreading of history that shuts down further inquiry. It slots the Founders into contemporary conversations too easily, and the cost to our collective historical imagination will far outlast any tactical gains that one or another side might make in the culture wars. (‘Culture wars’: rather a grand name for local proxy conflicts whose chief purpose seems to be distraction from, among other things, actual wars…)

The Founders don’t need to be mythic embodiments of Good and Evil to be useful to us today — quite the opposite, if they’re to be sustainably useful and meaningful. Our inability to admit that the Founders were complex human beings is part of the reason we have such a childish relationship to our national history. The idea of America is an ongoing conversation, a history of debate between complexly invested humans. We go back to Colonial history wanting it to illustrate a point or settle an argument. But that’s not what historical inquiry does — the past doesn’t settle our arguments, we have to do that for ourselves. And we’re best able to handle our own business when we know where we’ve really come from.

Anyhow, the upshot here is twofold:

  1. You should listen to (or see) Hamilton, which is a great musical on its own terms.
  2. You should ignore the people who tell you it ‘brings the history to life.’ For ‘history,’ there, read ‘mythology.’ Hamilton settles for being a passion play when it could have been something so much more interesting: a problem play.