Sunday, July 09, 2006

Some riffs on new and old art...

I just went to the theater to see the Superman Returns flick, and was pleasantly surprised... though in part because of preset expectations that were extremely low. I had heard, for example that there were dozens of pretentious Father-Son-savior-redemption referents, and there were... as Supe blatantly takes upon his shoulders the burden of humanity’s sins... ooooh. And yet, it was quite not as offensively pushy as I feared. And while the protagonist’s endleesly schoolboyish , brokenhearted crush on Lois was way over the top, some of the movie's color and vivid flash helped make up for it.

There was a point when Lex Luthor seemed about to push for sharing Kryptonian secrets with humanity, referring to Prometheus in ways that seemed to foreshadow a movie that was set upon preaching AGAINST science and progress. But, fortunately, this hint and story line was dropped entirely, in favor of yet another simpleminded, addlepated Luthorian get-rich land swindle. At one level, that was a steep IQ-chopping lobotomy. And yet, a welcome one, since it spared us another “there are things man is not meant to know” Luddite rant.

On the positive side, there were a few moments of normal people stepping in to help out. Perhaps a new superhero tradition? Not as beautifully and meaningfully as it was done in both Spiderman films - (those two did this in boldly profound and marvelously moving ways that I deeply admired) - but at least a bit of it was there.

And now, regarding art on a much more elevated level.... Stefan provided this and I want to thank him for it:

David, Samuel Clemens's slam against Sir Walter Scott reminds me of your rants about Bakshi, Lucas, and JRRT. Take this excerpt from the chapter "Enchantments and Enchanters" of _Life on the Mississippi_

"Against the crimes of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte may be set two compensating benefactions: the Revolution broke the chains of the _ancien régime_ and of the Church, and made of a nation of abject slaves a nation of freemen; and Bonaparte instituted the setting of merit above birth, and also so completely stripped the divinity from royalty, that whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before, they are only men, since, and can never be gods again, but only figure-heads, and answerable for their acts like common clay. Such benefactions as these compensate the temporary harm which Bonaparte and the Revolution did, and leave the world in debt to them for these great and permanent services to liberty, humanity, and progress.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless, and worthless long-vanished society.

He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.

There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive work, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.

But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner--or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it--would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediæval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter."


Phew! I am not sure that even I would go so far as Clemens does here, in my denunciations of romanticism. (Indeed, I feel that I do not denounce as much as caution.) For example, it seems to me that Clemens ignores the INHERENT allure of feudalism. I see it as clearly the “natural” human order, since it erupted almost everywhere, across 4,000 years. Certainly the proud and prickly Southern caste system was already present before Sir Walter Scott.

And yet, he is right to point out that this elitist-feudalist-fantasy-ramantic stuff - when it becomes anti-modernist propaganda - is one of the purest evils around. Moreover, how can I feel anything but warmth toward Clemens for expressing - once again - his alliance with us moderns, and with our determined goal of human progress.

Want an irony? read something else by the same man... Mark Twain’s lovely rant against Benjamin Franklin! Superficially similar, it has very different deep meaning. It is a great piece, in which one grouchy brother gripes about another... while you can tell that they were so very much alike, under the skin. Both rambunctious and eager and bold and tolerant and deeply, deeply American. They were siblings.

Last week, standing by Franklin’s grave... just a block away from the American Enlightenment's Sinai... I felt very much the same.

9 comments:

Stefan Jones said...

Clemens wasn't just in alliance with the moderns . . . here were one! An early adopter of gadgets like the typewriter and telharmonium (google it), impatient with romantic B.S., and an arch social observer.

I've read three of his books over the last year or so: _Innocents Abroad_, _Roughing It_, and _Life on the Mississippi_. The middle book, about life in the old west, is the most valuable, in that it provides a sort of vaccination against romantic B.S. about frontier times.

* * *

I think Twain knew that the South's hierarchical society didn't originate with Scott's romanticism.

What the romantic, fictional twaddle provided was a mythical framework for the rough and ready frontiersmen who settled the South to hang their hats, bonnets, and whips on as they adopted the brutal economic logic of the plantation system. Ironically, the dirt farmers and indentured servants of colonial times became the faux-aristocrats of a system more oppressive than the one that their serf ancestors labored under.

* * *

DB, you should google and link to Twain's writing about Ben Franklin. Virtually everything he wrote is on-line.

Tony Fisk said...

(Speaking of firefronts...)
Anyone following the previous discussion on hosting might want to check my last comment before moving on.
(BTW I'd add marketing departments to the insane and mentally damaged)

OK, back to Clemens...

michael v said...

I would say that feudalism was one of many somewhat similar but importantly distinct systems that predated modernity. There was also empire (distinct form imperialism), and the city state system, as well as the nomadic systems and other oddities, (gypsies, horse people, boat people, etc)

Don Quijote said...

Suppose you were a heartless bastard, and suppose you were a Republican, but, .....I repeat myself. Mark Twain

Daniel Bruno said...

Mr. Brin,

Hi. I've never commented here before, and this is sort of a silly little thing to get me starting, but oh well.

There was a wonderful scene in Bruce Timm's Superman animated series from the nineties featuring the "normal people stepping in to help out the superhero" theme. Earth had been invaded by the horrible warlord-tyrant, Darkseid, for some reason, and the crux of his plan was to break Superman and use that victory to drive the people to despair, so they wouldn't bother to resist. Or something to that effect.

He succeeds, and displays the chained Superman to the crowds... but then a single cop named Dan Turpin stands up and frees Superman, and the rest of the Police forces continue fighting against the alien soldiers. Then Darkseid kills the cop out of frustration, while Superman and the rest of the cops resist the invasion.

An opposing alien group might have come to help earth out at that point, I don't really remember. But I know the last scene was of Superman standing over the grave after the funeral, saying, "The world didn't really need a super man... just a brave one."

Or maybe it was less edifying than that, I'm not really sure after all these years. But it seems to be the same theme!

Stefan Jones said...

And don't forget: There's a brief bit in Superman II where ticked-off New Yorkers (uh, Metropolinians), believing Superman dead, pick up rubble and advance menacingly on the Kryptonian criminals. Totally futile, but inspiring.

Matzebrei said...

First the Incredibles, now Superman...

Do I detect a pattern where the modernist "share the secrets to superpowers with everyone" sentiment gets put in the villian's mouth?

I'm not sure whether to see it as romanticism rising or as the authors trying desparately to get the modernist viewpoint out some way -- any way


-- Matt

Tony Fisk said...

And, of course, the scene in Babylon 5 where Sheridan stands up to the combined might of the 'old one' Vorlon and Shadow battlefleets and says: 'Get the hell out of our galaxy!'

(In an earlier age, can you imagine Kimball Kinnison doing this to the Arisians and Eddorians?)

Oh, the number of 'contracts' supposedly taken out on that show!

Anonymous said...

I guess someone needs to actually include what Twain said about Franklin. I find it much funnier than the piece about Scott. Actually I found The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain compilation to be the best reading of Twains perhaps with the exception of Tom Sawyer Abroad. Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It and Innocents Abroad just seemed to lack the refinement of a well constructed work.

The Late Benjamin Franklin
by Mark Twain
The Galaxy, July 1870, p138-140

[Never put off til to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.--B.F.]

This party was one of those persons whom they call Philosophers. He was twins, being born simultaneously in two different houses in the city of Boston. These houses remain unto this day, and have signs upon them worded in accordance with the facts. The signs are considered well enough to have, though not neccessary, because the inhabitants point out the two birth-places to the stranger anyhow, and sometimes as often as several times in the same day. The subject of this memoir was of a vicious disposition, and early prostituted his talents to the invention of maxims and aphorisms calculated to inflict suffering upon the rising generation of all subsequent ages. His simplest acts, also, were contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever--boys who might otherwise have been happy. It was in this spirit that he became the son of a soap-boiler; and probably for no other reason than that the efforts of all future boys who tried to be anything might be looked upon with suspicion unless they were the sons of soap-boilers. With a malevolence which is without parallel in history, he would work all day and then sit up nights and let on to be studying algebra by the light of a smouldering fire, so that all other boys might have to do that also or else have Benjamin Franklin thrown up to them. Not satisfied with these proceedings, he had a fashion of living wholly on bread and water, and studying astronomy at meal time--a thing which has brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious biography.

His maxims were full of animosity toward boys. Nowadays a boy cannot follow out a single natural instinct without tumbling over some of those everlasting aphorisms and hearing from Franklin on the spot. If he buys two cents worth of peanuts, his father says, "Remember what Franklin has said, my son,--`A groat a day's a penny a year;'" and the comfort is all gone out of those peanuts. If he wants to spin his top when he is done work, his father quotes, "Procrastination is the thief of time." If he does a virtuous action, he never gets anything for it, because "Virtue is its own reward." And that boy is hounded to death and robbed of his natural rest, because Franklin said once in one of his inspired flights of malignity--

Early to bed and early to rise
Make a man healthy and wealthy and wise.

As if it were any object to a boy to be healthy and wealthy and wise on such terms. The sorrow that that maxim has cost me through my parents' experimenting on me with it, tongue cannot tell. The legitimate result is my present state of general debility, indigence, and mental aberration. My parents used to have me up before nine o'clock in the morning, sometimes, when I was a boy. If they had let me take my natural rest, where would I have been now? Keeping store, no doubt, and respected by all.

And what an adroit old adventurer the subject of this memoir was! In order to get a chance to fly his kite on Sunday, he used to hang a key on the string and let on to be fishing for lightning. And a guileless public would go home chirping about the "wisdom" and the "genius" of the hoary Sabbath-breaker. If anybody caught him playing "mumble-peg" by himself, after the age of sixty, he would immediately appear to be ciphering out how the grass grew--as if it was any of his business. My grandfather knew him well, and he says Franklin was always fixed--always ready. If a body, during his old age, happened on him unexpectedly when he was catching flies, or making mud pies, or sliding on a cellar-door, he would immediately look wise, and rip out a maxim, and walk off with his nose in the air and his cap turned wrong side before, trying to appear absent-minded and eccentric. He was a hard lot.

He invented a stove that would smoke your head off in four hours by the clock. One can see the almost devilish satisfaction he took in it, by his giving it his name.

He was always proud of telling how he entered Philadelphia, for the first time, with nothing in the world but two shillings in his pocket and four rolls of bread under his arm. But really, when you come to examine it critically, it was nothing. Anybody could have done it.

To the subject of this memoir belongs the honor of recommending the army to go back to bows and arrows in place of bayonets and muskets. He observed, with his customary force, that the bayonet was very well, under some circumstances, but that he doubted whether it could be used with accuracy at long range.

Benjamin Franklin did a great many notable things for his country, and made her young name to be honored in many lands as the mother of such a son. It is not the idea of this memoir to ignore that or cover it up. No; the simple idea of it is to snub those pretentious maxims of his, which he worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel; and also to snub his stove, and his military inspirations, his unseemly endeavor to make himself conspicuous when he entered Philadelphia, and his flying his kite and fooling away his time in all sorts of such ways, when he ought have been foraging for soap-fat, or constructing candles. I merely desired to do away with somewhat of the prevalent calamitous idea among heads of families that Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting til morning like a Christian, and that this programme, rigidly inflicted, will make a Franklin of every father's fool. It is time these gentlemen were finding out that these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it. I wish I had been the father of my parents long enough to make them comprehend this truth, and thus prepare them to let their son have an easier time of it. When I was a child I had to boil soap, notwithstanding my father was wealthy, and I had to get up early and study geometry at breakfast, and peddle my own poetry, and do everything just as Franklin did, in the solemn hope that I would be a Franklin some day. And here I am.