Friday, May 30, 2014

A Trigger of a Different Color

Lenny Bruce (Examiner Press Photo)

Trigger was Roy Rogers’ horse. His original name was actually Golden Cloud. Was Roy anticipating the whole movement against triggering language that derived out of feminist theory and that has recently spread like one of those fires in drought stricken areas of the West, according to a recent Times piece, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” (NYT, 5/17/140 To what extent does language create and affect human action? And to what length must we go in terms of policing language in order to purify human intentions and motives? Is such a project feasible? During the 60’s comedians like Lenny Bruce went to jail to protect free speech and George Carlin would later carry on the banner and create a lucrative career by defying censorship—as did other personalities like Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern. Stern created a virtual empire of transgression, which continues on today. But backlash was forming in what one might have thought was one of the most improbable of precincts. If the right had always been sparing in its defense of the First Amendment they found an ally in militant feminists who began to regard the free expression of pornography as a form of exploitation. Christian fundamentalists and left wing feminist activists might seem like strange bedfellows, to carry the pornography metaphor even further, but they did and to some extent continue to remain allies when it comes to the question of triggering language that has become a new issue on college campuses. The Times piece goes on to describe how students have protested certain books which they feel have “triggering” or offensive language and how such students have advocated the use of “trigger warnings.” The article cites works like The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Things Fall Apart as examples of books that have come under scrutiny in a number of colleges and universities including the University of California at Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers and the University of Michigan, for containing language which is offensive or hurtful to those students traumatized by issues of misogyny or racism. To deny that language can create thought and that it can be prone to misinterpretation by psychopaths, who believe that a book depicting rape somehow condones it, is obviously counter to the truth of experience. However, are we ready to perform an even greater act of violence, by amputating the title of a classic like Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: A Tale of the Forecastle to read “The Person of Color of the Narcissus” or to redact the text of The Merchant of Venice so that there is no mention that Shylock is a Jew, under the theory that such knowledge could incite anti-Semitism?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Lunchbox

There’s an expression “make the first bite the feast” which could easily be applied to Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. The consummation of passion may be far from the director’s game plan. However, The Lunchbox is a movie in which every little bit of experience matters. Though there's something contrived about in the story of Saajen Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), the dour civil servant and widower who mistakenly receives the lovingly prepared dishes of Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife who is trying to win the heart of her indifferent husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), the canvas is large. The appeal to the senses becomes the conduit of love and it’s through the olfactory sense that Ila, in a wonderfully crafted moment, discovers her husband’s infidelity--in the course of smelling a shirt. The Lunchbox is truly an Epicurean movie, if we understand that pleasure for Epicurus was predicated, not on gluttony, but a modulated gratification ultimately aimed at alleviating pain. If there are epistolary novels, Batra has created an epistolary movie, as his two love interests only meet each other through letters. The off-camera theme also takes an auditory form in the relationship between Ila and her Aunt (Bharati Achrekar), a Mumbai Molly Picon, who screams advice and recipes out of an upstairs window. These absented characters might be looked at as a cat and mouse game, but the missed connections are precisely what infuses the movie’s sights, sounds and smells with so much significance. “The wrong train will sometimes get you to the right station,” is one of the movie's mantras and it’s a perfect antidote to the bustling version of modern Indian life that threatens to engulf the humanity of Batra’s characters. “There are many people and everyone wants what the other has,” Saajen writes at one point. The Lunchbox is almost anachronistic in its slow moving cultivation of sensibility, but it lets you smell the roses.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Atlas in Detroit

photo of Lee Lawrie’s Atlas: ThreeOneFive (talk)
Yesterday’s front page Times story recounted a touching and also very telling anecdote. “13 Deaths, Untold Heartache, From G.M. Defect,” 5/27/14) began by recounting the tragic story of Candice Anderson whose boyfriend Gene Mikale Erickson was killed in a car accident back in 2004. Anderson, who the Times explained "had a trace of Xanax in her blood," was the driver and always blamed herself for something which turned out to be caused by a defective ignition switch which was  the fault of G.M. The whole G.M. scandal will go down in the annals as one of the worst cases of corporate depravity on the record. Yet the notion of blame the case illustrates is also very instructive. Criminals and sociopaths refuse to take responsibility for their acts and there is a whole gray area of people who take responsibility for their deeds while at the same time fueling their denial with defensive behavior. These are the kinds of people who excuse harmful actions by blaming them on the culture and saying that everyone does it. There is a little bit of larceny in everybody is a common expression that is used in discussing the kind of hanky-panky that goes on with expense accounts. But the average person may be a little like Atlas, trying to climb up the mountain of life bearing the weight of the world on his or her shoulders. Such is the case of Ms. Anderson who had unwittingly taken the burden off of G.M.’s shoulders and laid it on her own. Blame can be like a hot potato. Everyone is always trying to pass the buck. However in this case, a past history of recreational drug use, which might have been used to explain the incident, not only caused unjustified individual suffering, but also served to divert from a truthful reckoning of G.M.’s culpability—and one which would inevitably lead the carmaker to revamp their corporate checks and balances.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Rural Nubility

Baigneuse, ciel orageux by Felix Valloton
You’ve heard of the rural nobility, but there is also the rural nubility which has continued to have an enormous influence even though we  don’t speak of it in the same breath as say the Duke of Earl. Yes dynasties like the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs have fallen, but you will find a nubility that’s thriving in the vast stretches of verdant land surrounding the great cities of the world, composed chiefly of comely young ladies at the prime of the lives. The nubility is particularly strong in France, but it is also a very important presence in Italy, Germany and many countries in the Scandinavian block. One thing that’s important to note is the connection to some of the old world customs. To be a nubile young lady you have to have reached the age of monarchy, though you don’t necessarily have to believe in the divine right of kings. Most nubiles are characterized by a certain ripeness and what they have in common with the nobility of the past is a standoffish quality. Because a nubile young lady is highly desired and finds many men hitting on her, she must keep her distance. She also learns quickly to make the most of the her talents by playing hard to get. If you go to one of the rural discos where royalty gather, you will find many nubile young women partying into the wee hours and you are likely to feel like a rejected suitor before the evening even starts. But one thing to remember is that someone is going to get lucky and you might as well be the one. Get your cards right out on the table and remember the adage which goes back as far as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: swordsmanship is always mightier than penmanship.