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Race Relations in Seattle

So I’m waiting for my ride at 5th and Jackson, when my bus driver friend Gary (older black gentleman, very nice, but very formal) drives up in the #14. A lady with tattoos on her face staggers towards the bus as I’m talking to him, so I step back to let her on, rolling my eyes to let Gary know he’s got a real winner coming on board. She’s just trashed, and being Caucasian, I guess that makes her White Trash (in this part of town, it’s probably 50/50 odds the inebriated person is black or white. The Asians are rarely wasted, or they never show it, and I won’t even mention the Native Americans).

Anyway, after the drunk Caucasian lady stumbles past Gary, he looks at me and says, “That’s one of your people, Finnegan.” Then he closes the door and drives on up Jackson.

Maybe you’d need to know Gary, but it was funny as hell.

Now, if our roles were reversed, could I say the same thing, and would it be funny? Obviously no, and I think it could be justifiably considered a racist comment. Doesn’t that mean that Gary’s comment is racist as well? What’s fair (or unfair) for someone on the basis of race must be fair or unfair for someone of a different race, right?

Only if you’re an idiot. The manner in which people of different races, especially blacks and whites, view one another has a long history in this country, and ignoring it, or trying to ignore it, turns us into fools. People are different. We treat different people differently, and that’s just the way it is.

No, it doesn’t mean racism is a laughing matter. Neither, in most or at least many circumstances, are drunkenness and tattooed faces. And I’m not sure how well this story would play in front of a crowd, told by a comedian. In fact, this seems like a pretty good illustration of the difference between what’s funny for professional comedians, and what it means to have a sense of humor in the midst of whatever life happens to throw at you. The former can be enjoyable, but the latter is necessary so that life doesn’t become unbearable.

Liberalism, as the recent attacks on La Ville Lumière have shown, cannot provide the basis for a sustainable society.

800px-Jacques-Louis_David_-_Marat_assassinated_-_Google_Art_Project

By liberalism, I do not mean Democrats versus Republicans, or the ideology of invite the world versus that of bomb the world. I mean all of it together.

Mularkey

bishop in drag

Here I was all set to vent my journalistic outrage (and privately, I did) regarding this kuffuffle, when a more staid and sober friend sent along the above as Exhibit A for The Possible Reason Behind the Reason Mularkey Had to Go

She also engages in a lot of modernist talk about art that I’m not sure squares with Catholic aesthetics – but I’ll let the philosophes among us make that call…

“Dorfman is an artist who understands that. The animated tactility of his work testifies to the obstinate fact that art comes to us from gifted hands in service to an eye. At the end of the day, sensibility is everything.”

As my friend asks, whither transcendence?

HT/DH

“Slouching toward Mecca”

Mark Lilla has written a great article on Michel Houellebecq’s new novel in last month’s New York Review of Books.

The bestselling novel in Europe today, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission, is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities., is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities.

… Houellebecq had gotten into trouble a decade ago for telling an interviewer that whoever created monotheistic religion was a “cretin” and that of all the faiths Islam was “the dumbest.” The normally measured editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, declared five days before Soumission appeared that Houellebecq was “keeping a place warm for Marine Le Pen at the Café de Flore.” The reliably dogmatic Edwy Plenel, a former Trotskyist who runs the news site Mediapart, went on television to call on his colleagues, in the name of democracy, to stop writing news articles on Houellebecq—France’s most important contemporary novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt—effectively erasing him from the picture, Soviet style. Ordinary readers could not get their hands on the book until January 7, the official publication date. I was probably not the only one who bought it that morning and was reading it when the news broke that two French-born Muslim terrorists had just killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Soumission will be published in English this fall, so maybe we can start a group reading after the Percy conference.

from Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis

I’ve been rereading this 1899 novel by Machado de Assis, and came across this passage, which seems somewhat related to the conversation JOB and I have been having over the last month or so.

God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young and very promising composer, who was trained in the heavenly conservatory. A rival of Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, he resented the preference they enjoyed in the distribution of the prizes. It could also be that the over-sweet and mystical style of these other pupils was abhorrent to his essentially tragic genius. He plotted a rebellion which was discovered in time, and he was expelled from the conservatory. And that would have been that, if God had not written an opera libretto, which he had given up, being of the opinion that this type of recreation was inappropriate to His eternity. Satan took the manuscript with him to hell. With the aim of showing that he was better than the others—and perhaps of seeking a reconciliation with heaven—he composed the score, and as soon as he had finished it, took it to the Heavenly Father.

“Lord, I have not forgotten the lessons I have learned,” he said. “Here is the score, listen to it, have it played, and if you think it worthy of the heavenly heights, admit me with it to sit at your feet …”

“No,” replied the Lord, “I don’t want to hear a thing.”

“But, Lord …”

“Not a thing, not a thing!”

Satan went on pleading, with no greater success, until God, tired and full of mercy, gave His consent for the opera to be performed, but outside heaven. He created a special theater, this planet, and invented a whole company, with all the principal and minor roles, the choruses and the dancers.

“Come and listen to some of the rehearsals!”

“No, I don’t want to know about it. I’ve done enough, composing the libretto …”

If we imagine that the score is by Schoenberg, maybe the passage will make even more sense!

Heads up.

Martyrdom: The Coloring Book - Fryd and GfrörerMartyrdom: The Coloring Book

  • Illustrated by the supremely grim, superlatively talented Julia Gfrörer *
  • Due September 2015 from Zest Books
  • Blurb:

    The lives of the saints are filled with inspiring, life-changing moments—but the deaths of the martyrs are where you’ll find the real “Oh, hell no!” moments of history. This adult (very adult, as the body count will quickly indicate) coloring book gives aspiring crayon and paper artists the chance to hone their craft while also buffing up their knowledge of Catholic history and tales. The attending stories will go down pretty easy at cocktail hours as well. [Continued…]

Ross Douthat Checks Gary Trudeau’s Privilege

Can Ross Douthat bring to Reason the subscription base of the New York Times? Probably not, but he continues making a valient effort:

A living cartoonist lecturing his murdered peers makes for a curious spectacle, but that’s what transpired at journalism’s George Polk Awards a week ago. The lecturer was Garry Trudeau, of “Doonesbury” fame; his subject was the cartoonists for Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satire rag, who were gunned down by fanatics because of their mockery of Muhammad and Islam.

Trudeau did not exactly say they had it coming, but he passed judgment on their sins — not the sin of blasphemy, but the sin of picking a politically unsuitable target for their jabs. By mocking things sacred to Europe’s Muslim immigrants, Trudeau lamented, the Hebdo cartoonists were “punching downward … attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” This was both a moral and an aesthetic failing, because “ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”

On Semele by George Frideric Handel, performed by Seattle Opera

IMG_20150306_215118

                                                                                                
If the picture above reminds you of a view from the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, there’s a reason for that. Semele is based on a Greek myth about a young woman in love with Zeus, best known through the ages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Book Three (l.251 ff). It’s a great story that has received surprisingly little treatment over the centuries. Shakespeare didn’t use it, I don’t think. But what exactly is the best way to present an ancient myth in an opera from 1744 to a 21st century audience?

As science fiction, of course. Before the stage was lit, a giant screen was revealed, onto which were projected the pictures and names of the characters in the opera, along with the names of the players in somewhat smaller script. The font was that of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film directed by Steven Spielberg. I think the Star Trek font would have established the Sci-Fi connection more strongly, but alas, alack, they didn’t consult me. After the Introit the screen went up, revealing a massive set of stairs that would look perfectly in place in front of either the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus or the Galactic Senate in Star Wars.

There soon appears two star crossed lovers, Athamas, who is engaged to Semele, and Ino, who is Semele’s sister. With Semele’s father, Cadmus, the quartet sings “Why Dost thou thus untimely grieve?”, it’s for one another. Nobody’s happy. Then comes the good news: Semele has been carried off by a giant eagle! Getting taken away by Zeus (sorry, Juppiter, or Jove) is usually a bad thing (see every other story in Ovid), but what else can you do with a problem like Semele? “Endless pleasure, endless love”, she sings, quite ecstatic with her new Deus ex Machina. In this version by Seattle Opera, it’s actually Deus ex Velovelum being the best I can think of for “screen” – as in the one pictured above. There are screens all over the place in this production (funding by Gates, et al.): giant ones, rather large ones, and the merely big ones, which ought to have made this audience feel right at home, very literally speaking.

Thus ended Act One. A word about the costumes … sticking to the plan, the dress was rather obviously science fictiony, without referring to any single show in particular. I’m tempted to say Star Trek, but then Athamas looked more like an escapee from the world of The Prisoner, Cadmus from Star Wars, and like the sex-oozing, would-be goddess from any movie in any decade, black and white, color, or even the old silents, Semele wore a nightgown, which will look much the same five hundred years from now, if they’re lucky. Jove and the rest of the gods are in somewhat less restrictive clothing, like those pagan heathens on distant planets in the original Star Trek series (Mudd, for example).

Act Two opens on Juno (wife of Jove, if you’ve forgotten), who has just learned about her husband’s latest tryst from the messenger goddess Iris, and is of course less than thrilled by the news. Iris has perhaps the best costume in the show, tailored up in a brown leather jumpsuit and a vaguely Spartan helmet, which I took for an allusion to the Flash Gordon (1936). Juno hatches a plan to disguise herself as Ino in order to visit the girl kept in her boudoir and then sings “Iris, hence away!” to get themselves both off the stage. Jupiter and Semele then open up the second scene, the latter obviously a bit tuckered out as she sings, “Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?” Jupiter is unfazed, as he sings “Where’er you walk”, slowly, maybe a little like Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (which, like much of Semele, features a harpsichord). Juno disguised as Ino visits Semele and they close the Act with “Hark, the heavenly sphere”, eventually standing before the image of the planet in the picture above and the stars swirling around all of it. This was one amazing visual, one of the best I’ve seen at Seattle Opera, ever–it worked so perfectly with the music.

Act Three opens on Somnus, god of sleep, doing just that. He’s part of Juno’s plot to get rid of Semele—I don’t remember how exactly, but I certainly remember “More sweet is that name”, which he sings in praise of the nymph Pasithea. Pasithea herself prances and dances around stage, looking more like a member of Blue Man Group on the half-shell than a nymph, but charmingly so. I felt myself turning a little blue, actually (the sensuous in its elemental originality and all that). Juno-disguised-as-Ino makes her way into Semele’s private room and gives her a mirror, a very very special mirror that causes Semele to fall in love with herself (“Myself I shall adore”), in which state she is easily convinced that she deserves to see her lover for who he is — Jove himself. The ransom is perfectly predictable, and the titles of Semele’s next arias tell the story: “I am ever granting, you always complain” (Semele), “No, no, I’ll take no less” (Semele), and from there it goes on to end much as you’d expect it to end, which is to say badly for Semele, but mostly good for everyone else. Athamas and Ino are able to marry after all. Juno has offed yet one more rival (“Above measure is the pleasure”), while Jupiter is presumably off to find another. Apollo appears and announces that from the ashes of Semele, a new god shall be born—none other than Dionysus.

Which means there’s a lot more sex and violence to come.

Kudos to Seattle Opera for a job very well done. The sets and costumes were astonishingly fresh—an entirely original production that ought to travel well. The singers I heard were uniformly excellent: Mary Feminear as Semele, Theo Lebow as Jupiter, Deborah Nansteel as Juno (and Ino), and in a short but very impactful role, Amanda Forsythe as Iris.

Hopefully you’ll be able to see it all (the production, if not the cast) in a theater nearby.

Elie Revisits Rushdie

A fine long piece by Paul Elie on the 25th anniversary of The Satanic Verses came out in Vanity Fair last April, but it strikes a more timely chord now in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.

A Fundamental Fight

It was published in London on September 26, 1988, with a dust jacket describing it as a “great wheel of a book.” Penguin took out an ad (“Wonderful stories and flights of the imagination surround the conflict between good and evil”) and threw a launch party for its list of autumn titles, at which Rushdie met Elmore Leonard and Robertson Davies. Rushdie had a high-spirited dinner with his editors. Lacey, the book’s U.K. editor, recalls the relative naïveté of that evening: “Salman, my paperback colleague Tim Binding, and I vying over who could recite the most Bob Dylan lyrics.”

“I tried to write against stereotypes,” Rushdie wrote, but “the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world.”

London’s Reform Club, on the Pall Mall, has had many illustrious authors as members: Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster—and Graham Greene, who, one winter’s day in 1989, lunched at the club with international writers living in London.

“Rushdie!” he called out. “Come and sit here and tell me how you managed to make so much trouble! I never made nearly as much trouble as that!”

“This was oddly comforting,” Rushdie recalled. England’s most famous living author was making light of the fix he was in.

From hiding, Rushdie issued a statement of regret for “the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.” From Tehran, Khomeini doubled down: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell.”

The British establishment set itself against the book and its author: from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie (who invoked England’s blasphemy laws), to the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe (who deemed the novel “extremely critical [and] rude” about Britain). Even Jimmy Carter—he whose presidency had been quashed by Khomeini—weighed in against the “insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.”

“I had an argument with Prince Charles at a small dinner party,” Martin Amis recollects. “He said—very typically, it seems to me—‘I’m sorry, but if someone insults someone else’s deepest convictions, well then,’ blah blah blah . . . And I said that a novel doesn’t set out to insult anyone. ‘It sets out to give pleasure to its readers,’ I told him. ‘A novel is an essentially playful undertaking, and this is an exceedingly playful novel.’

“The Prince took it on board, but I’d suppose the next night at a different party he would have said the same thing.”

The idea for the gathering came from Gerald Marzorati, who had carved out an excerpt of the book that ran in the December Harper’s, and then wrote a Rushdie profile for The New York Times Magazine. Why not a public reading of Rushdie’s novel, to be coordinated by PEN and Harper’s publisher John “Rick” MacArthur? “I was given the task of choosing excerpts because very few people in New York had actually read the book,” Marzorati says, pointing out that the roster of participants was very broad—from Abbie Hoffman on the left to Midge Decter on the right. Edward Said was there; so was Leon Wieseltier. Robert Caro was there; so was Tom Wolfe. Joan Didion was there; so was Larry McMurtry.

The Columns held 500 people, and as the writers entered, cries could be heard from the demonstrators outside. “Death to Rushdie! Death to Rushdie!”

The first author stood up to read, and his opening remark was a kind of answer. “My name is Robert Stone,” he said, “but today we are all Salman Rushdie.”

They read and spoke into the evening. Mailer said of the fatwa, “This must be the largest hit contract in history.” Talese recited the Lord’s Prayer. Wieseltier declared that “one day the Muslim world may recall with admiration its late-20th-century Anglo-Indian Voltaire.” Rushdie’s close friend Christopher Hitchens transformed a single sentence from the novel into a brilliant defense of the whole: “To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be—Mahound.”

“It was inspiring and electrifying,” recalls Gerald Howard, a former Viking editor who was there. “It broke the fever of fear the literary world was living in.”

Bombs exploded in Cody’s bookstore, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and half a dozen bookshops in the U.K. The novel’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator stabbed, its Turkish translator attacked. Its Norwegian publisher was shot and left for dead. (He survived.) Two clerics who spoke out against the fatwa—one Saudi, one Tunisian—were shot and killed in Brussels.

Rushdie embraced Islam; then, just as suddenly, he turned away. Many in England’s Old Guard rounded on him, having figured out that he was a popular cause but not a popular person. Sir Stephen Spender coolly explained that “it is mass immigration that has got him into the trouble in which he now finds himself.” Former prime minister Edward Heath lamented that Rushdie’s “wretched book” had cost Great Britain “masses of trade.” Auberon Waugh asked “just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people.” Hugh Trevor-Roper trumpeted that he “would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring [Rushdie’s] manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”

“The fact of being alive compensated for what life did to one,” Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses, and he has asserted the fact of his aliveness. In the quarter-century since the fatwa, he has published a dozen books and given scores of public readings and addresses. In 2007 departing prime minister Tony Blair successfully recommended him for knighthood. He has fulfilled a lifelong dream of adapting Midnight’s Children into a feature film. And he has seen The Satanic Verses become, remarkably, just another great book on history’s shelf, regarded less as a forbidden book (talk of the fatwa has diminished with the years) than as a classic of contemporary English-language literature.

Casting the Akira Kurosawa The Last Gentleman, #8

Takashi_ShimuraTakashi Shimura as Forney Aiken