Tuesday, March 29, 2005

We Value Life Above All Else

Wow, I'm actually addressing something concrete that's happening right now. For some reason I feel like that never happens.

The bottom line about Terri Schiavo, as Connor so astutely put it, is that the money that would have kept her alive for the next whatever-odd years should be used to immunize Mauritania. If we're to debate the sanctity of life, it's about time we do it on a scale simultaneously grander and more concrete. But we are not walking on the bottom line; we're walking on a tightrope parallel to it but about twenty feet above. Which is okay; that's where a lot of symbolic cases of aggressive individualism walk. I feel confident that what I have to say about Terri Schiavo is connected to what I have to say about torture, but I'm not sure how, so let's stick around this tightrope for a while.

Simply, I believe Michael Schiavo. I believe him because I can't see any other possible motivating factor for his actions. All financial matters have been settled, he got involved with this other woman and had kids with her anyway, so he didn't need to wait for Terri's death to do that, and if he truly, desperately wanted her dead he could have just killed her. So I believe they had this conversation; I believe he is motivated by his knowledge of his wife's wishes. There are gazillions of psychological explanations for why her family members are behaving as they are, for why they wish what they do, but I can't make any psychological sense of Michael Schiavo unless he's telling the truth. So, now in all probability Terri Schiavo is about to die of dehydration and starvation. And major brain damage. (Those water protesters were very much of interest to me, the utter symbolism and ineffectuality of it--it's not as if she can sip, why do you think she had a tube?) The cause of death will in all probability be called dehydration and starvation, at least by much of the press--there's also assisted suicide, murder (I mean, Michael Schiavo's already gotten death threats--there's no reason those won't continue once she dies), and "complications resulting from."

According to Bush, according to Congress, we value life above all else. "We" being America. Given the whole immunization-of-Mauritania argument, I'd say we value American life above all else, but if "we" refers to the government there's not really anything wrong with that. I mean, morally there is, but since the methods of defining and governing nation-states have not yet caught up to globalization, it's utterly reasonable and within the boundaries of their self-definition for governments of wealthy countries to put their priorities purely on their own people. I don't like it, but the logic is there. Then there's the second difficulty, that of we value the lives of white and decently monied people above the lives of others. Which doesn't have a government-philosophical excuse, and just sucks. Spend the money that is currently used to keep people who will be lifelong vegetables and have expressed a desire to die should that become the case (let me express that here for myself, by the by) to increase educational spending and drug prevention programs in the inner city or rural former industrial centers (the latter of which, as my father has explained to me, have very similar problems with violence, gangs and dropout rates, but fewer guns). But we won't do that either. We will value life exactly as we see life, exactly as we, the people in power, perceive our own lives to be. That we value, and on that we will put our financial and emotional and emotino-national priorities.

So how does this connect to torture? In torture, in the Disappeared, as well, we value not life in general, but a particular race and financial orientation of American life. It is not life we value above all else, it is *lifestyle*, a particular lifestyle. (A friend of a friend once worked for the U.N. and was trying to introduce sustainable urban agricultural processes and conservation to various committees, only to be told, "The American way of life is not up for debate.") We value our ability to stay as we are, or even to stay as we were before September 11, which two are closer to each other than our leadership cares to admit. We value not even American life, but Americanism, above all else. And we will use even the weirdest, most outrageous methods, even walking a tightrope twenty feet above what we're really talking about, to prove it.

Lucas, Bri and I had an interesting discussion last week about what the meaning of torture was, that one of the best arguments to be made against it was that it was simply ineffectual, that people who are being tortured will, as has been proven numerous times, admit to anything you tell them to admit to. "Of pain you could only wish one thing: that it should stop. Nothing in the world was so bad as physical pain." (1984 again. George Orwell, copyright 1949.) However, the assumption inherent to that argument is that the extraction of information is the real reason you're torturing people. And I can't imagine, at this point in time, that it ever is. That truth about torture has been proven time and time again, and only gets truer with the advancement of DNA research in criminal investigations. So we head to the other truth about torture, which is that when people are in a situation where others are in pain, it is a reasonable if terrifying reaction to make as certain as possible that it's not they who will be in pain. I don't endorse it, and I think it's scary that it's so consistently reinforced by society, but nevertheless I think it's present. Torture is not for extracting information; it's for creating a culture of fear. It's always been like that. There are uses to a culture of fear, if you want everything to stay exactly the same forever.

I'd like to say it's self-preservation that we value above all else, but even that's not quite it. I mean, it is, but . . . We value self-preservation exactly as we are, self-preservation frozen in time. We don't like to imagine that our perceptions of what life is or what's most important about it, or what is most important about love, or what is most important about our relationships to our children, can change (Schiavo); we don't like to imagine that our position of power in the world can change or that our ideas might not be universal and universally desirable (Iraq); we don't like to imagine that we can be taken down, even for a second, or if we are we like to imagine that our reassertion of our power is all it takes to stop it (torture, Abu Ghraib, etcetera). The scary part is that sometimes I think we might be right; these days I'm certainly having a hard time imagining how they would change.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Disappeared

The first summer I was at Bread & Puppet, I began extremely ambivalent about political theatre. I usually say that the protest was what changed that for me (see "Activists in America, Part the First"), and that definitely played a role, but the first time I really felt what political theatre could do was when Graciela, originally from Argentina (though she'd been living in Vermont for years), created a piece about the Madres del Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, or the Mothers of the Disappeared (that was the name of the piece). At the end of any piece regarding the Madres, if the piece is of any Argentinian origin, performers will shout out the names of particular Disappeared, and the audience responds, "Presente!" Even in the middle of Vermont, even knowing nothing about the political history of Argentina (and I don't know that much more now), this was an inordinately powerful experience. Chuck, also of B & P, related his own trip to Argentina, where lists of the Disappeared had been posted in the student center of a university. During one year in the '70s, more than 50% of the theater majors and philosophy majors had been disappared. (It may actually have been much more than 50%, but since I don't remember the particulars I won't put anything forward.) It shocked me to learn about this, how thorough the regime was and how much it knew where to strike.

This, too, is the Ministry of Love in George Orwell's 1984, long one of my favorite books in the entire universe. A person is "vaporized" for unorthodox behavior, that which fails to conform to the doctrine of Big Brother and the Oceanian government; once he is gone, he does not exist, he never existed. A person detained in the Ministry of Love is kept in a windowless cell for long enough that he loses track of time before he is allowed contact with interrogators, and if at some time he is allowed to return to society it is as someone completely different, unrecognizable to those who once ostensibly knew him.

Now the U.S., by most reports, has Disappeared of its own. The families of prisoners sent to Guantanamo Bay may never know where their relatives have gone; people may be arrested at airports and shipped to countries where coercive torture is perfectly legal. (Another post on torture, as per a conversation with Lucas and Bri a few nights ago, coming soon.) We are taking people out of society in the hope that society won't even notice.

And society, for the most part, doesn't. This is not 1984--I do not, for the record, completely buy into the constant parallels made between that novel and this administration--in that families are not expected to take no notice; they see no reason not to speak. They are not, however, heard. I mean, I got what little information I have on this phenomenon from the New York Times, a widely distributed publication, and yet it's rarely talked about and shows few signs of changing. This doesn't touch my life directly, and therefore, in this culture of aggressive individualism, it's not my province to change.

The new culture of invasion and suspicion has touched my life in mild ways--my friend R., whose last name is distinctly of Middle Eastern origin, has had her mail opened in transit and received empty envelopes; a friend of a friend who made vaguely threatening anti-administration posts on livejournal was reported to and received a visit from the FBI. I have not known anyone who was Disappeared. (That is the only grammatical way to speak of what I'm talking about. These people have not disappeared. They have been Disappeared.) I still trust, somehow, that this is an era and that it will pass with the passage of Bush, and that faith seems well-reasoned to me, and yet . . . Connor had a post in his blog today (blueskiesfalling.blogspot.com) regarding the differences between the current administration's policies and those of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. I will post a more extensive response to this on his blog, but it seems to me that the fundamental difference is in the secrecy. What McCarthy did was out in the open. The hearings were recorded; blacklists were public. Certainly being blacklisted was not easy, but if this administration's equivalent is to Disappear people, I'll take being blacklisted any day. As far as Joe McCarthy was concerned, he had nothing to hide. He believed he was in the right and if you didn't happen to agree with him, fuck you, he wasn't concerned. While I by no stretch believe he was in the right, what he was could not, per se, be called subversive. Subversive--sub versa, under the words. Subtext, about which I have been teaching my students. Though I was not alive in the '50s, as far as I can tell, McCarthy basically said what he meant. Bush don't do that.

What is happening here, under this administration, will not be undone by only one subsequent president. I think it's clear by now that this will be a substantive legacy--of national debt (of which I know next to nothing), of subversion of checks and balances, of moralism, but most of all of something now a few steps beyond two-facedness. Every politician has to be two-faced to some degree; every leader does. This is something I firmly believe and have recently had myriad debates about: that it's not the obligation of a leader to say everything. It is his or her obligation to answer question when asked, but to put spin, to omit certain details--every leader does that, and every leader should. It is a leader's job to take on responsibilities so that not absolutely everyone else has to, and in some cases the knowledge would create that responsibility. I say this speaking from the situations in which I am a leader. But what we have under Bush isn't two-facedness; it's poker-facedness. (I need to stop saying "facedness.") It's beyond not having responsibility; we're in the dark. This administration is not exercising Argentinian dictators' unabashed brutality on its citizens at large, but it is taking a path that could lead to the same end: it's walking in sand and erasing its tracks behind itself. And if it buries a few people in the sand along the way, well, there you have it. Even if we saw them go to the beach, we could walk over the sand for hours and not find a trace, and after a while if we're the only ones digging we'll be completely exhausted.

What's disappearing from America under the Bush administration is a sense of centrality. That is what nationalism rather than patriotism is. Patriotism allows us to collect at a center; nationalism pushes negativity outwards and leaves a vacancy at the center. And when there's a vacancy at the center, you, as the president, can do what you want. It'll work because nobody has a clear sense of what to care about anyway.

Will it pass with the passage of Bush? Perhaps. It can't be undone; most of the damage done by the Red Scare could. When you assume you can't be seen, you have fewer concerns about entering a sacred space. Why does this administration assume it can't be seen, and why is it right? Are we still in the clouds of dust that completely blanketed Brooklyn on September 11? (Is my writing incredibly overblown tonight?) I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. I doubt the subsequent administration will continue this process, and I also doubt it'll be sustainable for much longer. The atmosphere of hysteria surrounding the Schiavo case and the Social Security deal indicates to me that the administration's not sitting nearly as easily as once it was. But the fact that it's happened to people is so tremendously resonant. When I encountered the concept of the Disappeared they hit me from a distance. It's here now, and whatever else I do I have to own it as part of my history. I can only hope I never have to do more than that.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

By Indirections Find Directions Out

My sister was in town this past week (yay!) and we rented BAMBOOZLED. Then she and her friends saw HOTEL RWANDA, which I've already seen. (THE CRUCIBLE is also a spoiler in here, later on.) What Hallie had to say about HOTEL RWANDA was, basically, that one needn't feel compelled to view it as a movie because it basically *wasn't* a movie. It was a vehicle for telling this story. Nobody was trying for a creatively complex characterization--Cheadle met Rusesabagina and was simply trying to portray him as best he could--nobody was trying to utilize any noticeable cinematographic or directorial talent in any creative fashion. It wasn't about being a movie in the way that I am normally prepared to critique movies. As one of my students writes a nakedly autobiographical play about the night her brother was shot, and I'm deeply moved by things in it that I would not have accepted from another high schooler when I was in high school (not that I knew anyone whose brother had been shot and killed at the time), the concept of being direct comes forward once again. It's something that puzzles me in working with the Neo-Futurists (who attempt to create "non-illusory, interactive performance that conveys our experiences and ideas as directly and honestly as possible") and has been stuck in my mind ever since--at what point(s) do(es) directness and honesty overlap, in art and on the world stage?

Hallie argued that the characters in BAMBOOZLED were shallow, and that was part of what made it a bad movie. I believe they were deliberately shallow, that that was part of Lee's point. Hal said nobody makes their characters deliberately shallow; I disagree. I think it's rarely to never a *good* choice, but it's often a choice, and so I believe it was here. It was not a movie that was supposed to be about going into depth with its characters, he was presenting them as characters who didn't know who they were enough to go into depth with themselves, and if they couldn't, we couldn't. Not that that has to be the case--if they couldn't, we couldn't--but I think that's what he was doing. Either way. Lee had a lot to say about race that I'm not sure I entirely get yet. The basic premise of the movie is that a black television writer is told by his white producer that the shows he is proposing about middle-class blacks in various situations are not black enough. Furious, the writer bands together with his personal assistant (black, female, extremely educated) to write a minstrel show, starring two street performers, who have been dancing outside of the television studios, in blackface. It becomes an incredible hit, though it makes the band/gang/rebel group to which the personal assistant's brother belongs furious. Cultural chaos ensues, and a lot of people die, getting shot and killed by one another. Which didn't make emotional sense with the plot, and yet made emotional sense with the anger the plot attempted to express. There was a tremendous amount of power to the scene in which the entire studio audience has come in blackface--it's a groupie thing--and one of the hosts, a black man in blackface, goes through the audience asking people if they are niggers, and people of every race respond, "Yes, I'm a nigger!" (In various permutations of the phrase). I mean, ultimately the movie's not incredibly well-put-together or logical. It's almost a satire, but not exactly, because of the cruel drama of the ending (I suppose when you take another step back, that's parodic too, but it didn't quite feel like you were supposed to take another step back); it didn't find a consistent tone. But damn, the anger, which was what was direct, what assaulted you as a viewer, was palpable and solidly artistically expressed. You understood why it was a movie. And yet . . . it was just this side of completely lacking in symbolism. Everything it had to say it pretty much up and said. For which I do not fault it necessarily, but it's unusual and can often overshadow/neglect craft.

Symbol. Metaphor. Etcetera. These are all forms of indirection--as Sharon once put it, it may be that craft itself is indirect. Art is an indirect form of expression. Why do we choose it? As far as I'm concerned, because not all emotions are direct. In fact, very, very few are. Anger may be one of the closest, and yet some of the best art around is done out of anger. Gwendolyn Brooks said that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquility." On some level I would like to extend that to all arts (and emotion, contrary to popular rumor, needn't be simply about oneself, in classic omphaloskepsis style), and yet with theater and performance--I'd also extend it to movies--it's different simply because for a performance to be convincing and/or to draw you in (as in the case of the Neo-Futurists, where they're not trying to convince you that they're someone or something else or feeling something they are not but are often trying to persuade you to opinions they hold), you must use those recollections in yourself to such a degree that they seem to be or in fact are there once again, which sort of disrupts the tranquilty part. As far as I'm concerned, as I think I've said before, the choice to express yourself artistically as opposed to any other way--which ways, such as politics or humanitarian aid, are sometimes more direct--means that you obligate yourself (can you do that?) to the form as much as to the content. If you decide art is the best medium for what you want to say, then the way you will serve what you want to say best is to do the best art you can. And that's generally indirect, but it is the most honest. Why, though? I'm convinced that's true, but I can't see why indirection becomes honest, except that the way humans express themselves isn't always direct, but why's that the case? Why shouldn't we just be direct, except that then there'd be nothing to talk about--was it actually an evolutionary decision, somehow, for us to have something to talk about? That would be completely weird.

On extended metaphor/symbolism, we also have THE CRUCIBLE, which I saw at UT this past weekend (starring Katie and stage-managed by Cassie) and about which script I've long been ambivalent. This production did not change that. In some cases the uses of symbolism are social protection--i.e. it's the most direct form of expression that the current social climate offers you. I don't know . . . THE CRUCIBLE is really very much along the lines of BAMBOOZLED, an unadulterated expression of anger and very little besides anger, but that anger expressed by someone who already has some innate grasp of craft. (I'll admit Mr. Miller had an innate grasp of craft--I don't really admire what he *did* with it, but he *had* it.) And yet, we need to know about that anger, don't we? And better a movie about a weird racial phenomenon/social disaster/injustice/riot than to actually *have* a riot in response to all the weird racial phenomena/social disasters/injustices? Or maybe not--I mean, it's not like there's not a place for direct political action, there very much is; there's even a place for riots. But the mistake people make is in thinking art can *be* a riot. It can't. Art isn't direct action. That doesn't make it better or worse, but it does make it something other than what a lot of political artists wish it were. (And if they're good political artists, they make it good art in spite of wishing it were more direct action.)

So what am I really saying here about being direct? (Directness being, by the way, something I have come in the past year to value much more in social interactions.) I'm saying that knowing that art is indirect, in general we need to embrace its indirectness. To commit to craft, which I believe anyone choosing to do art over anything else needs to do, is to commit to a certain level of not being direct. And we also have to admit that there's nothing *wrong* with that; if indirectness did not have some value, it wouldn't have been a part of social interaction (can we talk about ostensible proper courtship behavior, for example) for so many years? To use a symbol is indirect, but often more honest and capable of having more impact. By indirections--by means of perspective--we're able to see what we have--the directions--more clearly. Hence, recollected in tranquility. As to the anger? I'm still a little confused on this front, honestly. I know sometimes we need to see anger boil through in art, and sometimes that's okay, but often it's detrimental to the art and thus detrimental to the expression, to the messages (pigeons again) it was trying to get across. But sometimes we do need to know: artists, who know how powerful art can be, are doing art about this because they're just that angry. Because what they're talking about just pisses them off so much. Does that last beyond its own era? I don't know. CRUCIBLE kind of has and kind of hasn't. The story of the Salem Witch Trials is just so incredible to me, as is the story of McCarthyism, that the power of those *concepts* can just carry me; I'm not sure it's exactly a good *play.* Same for BAMBOOZLED: it's in some ways a channel to make us look at race and weird racial relations, rather than at the characters and their stories. As Alex R. pointed out, one of its powers is that the whole "who's a nigger? I'm a nigger!" blackface phenomenon seemed so utterly conceivable, even in a movie that was mostly outrageous--outrageous purely to be provocative, which is generally what satire is. But why do movies and plays really have to be about their stories and their characters--isn't that in some ways what Brecht was trying to challenge with the theory of alienation (basically, that it's wrong to get the audience invested in a character's journey without reminding them constantly that what they're doing is watching a play--to go through the intellectual journey before attaching in any emotional way)? But he didn't neglect craft in order to do it--quite the contrary, in fact, since he was so detailed about the kind of responses he wanted. But you never get exactly the responses you wanted, unless you want generally enough.

*Sigh*. This is getting tautological.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I Like Bad Books and I Cannot Lie, These Other Brothers Can't Deny

Spoilers for today: MY SISTER'S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult, PUSH by Sapphire, THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and HANNIBAL by Thomas Harris. The title is deceptive, as only about two and a half of those books are genuinely bad. Apologies for the title, but I really, really couldn't resist.

Being the solitary woman that I am, I often spend a lot of my unemployed time reading books in bookstores, because they are books I'm not quite willing to buy and I don't want to be at home. Sometimes I read quality books--often, in fact--but occasionally a piece of less-than-quality work just appeals to me, even as I know it's not going to be well-done. I am a sucker for melodrama. I never quite clicked with romance novels, but literary fiction based on melodramatic premises will usually draw me in. One such is MY SISTER'S KEEPER, the story of a thirteen-year-old, Anna, whose older sister, Kate, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three. Anna was genetically engineered as the perfect match for bone marrow transplants, blood transfusions and other such procedures for Kate. Their older brother, Jesse, is a juvenile delinquent. The book is the story of Anna's choice, at thirteen, to sue her family for biological emancipation. It is told through the alternating narratives of Anna, Jesse, each of their parents, Anna's lawyer, and Anna's court-appointed social worker, the latter two of whom were madly in love in prep school. You can tell it's different narrators because each narrator has a different font. The shocking twist of plot? It was Kate who asked Anna to bring this lawsuit. The shockinger twist of plot? As soon as she is granted emancipation, Anna is killed when her lawyer's car crashes. Kate gets Anna's kidney and ends up living at least for the next five years, 'cause the final chapter is narrated by her and the chapters have years on 'em.

And I cried in the middle of Borders.

By all counts on which I judge art, MY SISTER'S KEEPER is a terrible book. There is no infusion of age into the voices; any attempt to distinguish one character's voice from another is utterly contrived, the cynical lawyer says cynical things and the very educated social worker makes literary references and Jesse talks about fire all the time and so forth. None of the characters are at all developed; they're pretty much situations, practical or emotional, rather than characters. The subplots are boring and trite, and the central plot is poorly researched legally and is almost impossible to do well anyhow. As I mentioned in my discussion with Lawrence about manipulation (see the comments on the authenticity post), it's a book that manipulates you into coming to a conclusion, rather than into going through a process. Ms. Picoult assumes she knows exactly how you, the reader, will feel in response to the novel's every move. Trouble was, occasionally she was right. I had a similar difficulty with PUSH, by Sapphire, which I read two months ago for my book club. PUSH is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl living in Harlem in the '80s, illiterate, who's been raped and abused by her father since she was seven years old and is pregnant with her second child by him, in addition to being molested by her mother, and finds herself (on the meta-level) in an alternative education/adult literacy program.

Now, PUSH is a better book than MY SISTER'S KEEPER. The voice, though I found it somewhat cloying, is genuine and well-executed, and the characters felt very clear to me. I did feel consistently emotionally manipulated in the same way--every time I felt something I should have felt, and it happened, I could feel Sapphire looking over my shoulder saying, "Yep. That's right. That's exactly what you're supposed to feel. Go on feeling that way." I was the only person in my book club who didn't like this book, and whenever anybody made a point about its construction or its political reverberations I couldn't really deny it. On some level I was a little more pissed at PUSH than at MY SISTER'S KEEPER, because PUSH had craft enough that it didn't have to be as manipulative as it was, we would have gotten there anyway. As we did in, say, LOVELY BONES. I've been very surprised at liking that book, but I do. I've read articles where it's described as "Tragedy Lite" (I wish I could cite that, but I totally can't; suffice it to say that I didn't come up with it), but I found it actually pretty thorough. It did commit the literary sin of believing it knew what its readers' responses were, and yet it didn't *assume* so. It still allowed us into the process, took us on the journey. A lot of people felt PUSH did that, but I thought moving from step to step relied a lot more upon its assumptions of the reader responses.

Of those three, I see it as justified to consider the latter two good books; not so the first. It's maudlin and poorly done. And yet it worked on me. It worked on me as someone who has a sister and understands the complexities and investments inherent in that, and could easily make the jump to imagining a situation like that, but goddamn I had to do all the imagining. Basically, MY SISTER'S KEEPER is a template. So, some books are emotionally manipulative on what I consider the worst, most artistically disingenuous level, and yet, they *work*. The very melodramatic ideas propelling them, no matter how unskilfully they artistically handle character development, plot development, voice, any commitment to the form, are enough to take us where the author wants us to go. It's lazy writing, but it's marketable and it's a skill that should not necessarily be sneered at. I mean, for sure it's functional. As someone I went to high school with said, "A Steven Spielberg movie, that could be really emotional, 'cause he's big on, like, making people feel things, you know?" The notion of "making people feel things" here is key. It's a commonly accepted truth, though I seem to be currently not accepting it, that it's good art that makes you react. Yet here I have found myself reacting to things that I think a) are not good art or b) have substantive artistic flaws.

So then, what makes a book good? To add to this mix, I recently read Thomas Harris's HANNIBAL after reading SILENCE OF THE LAMBS three years ago. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is actually fairly excellent, but even then just because of the genre I felt almost unfair saying Thomas Harris was A Good Writer. Intellectual snobbery already, before I'd even been thoroughly trained in it--but except for teen writing serials when I was younger, I've never really managed to connect to genre fiction, even as I've read fiction of all Genres that I liked. (Except romance novels, but I need to read more of those because I've a feeling I could make a living writing them.) But SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is really impressive. It maintains its sense of suspense and urgency throughout, it really develops its characters and gives them compelling relationships that you want to follow, it's creepy as fuck, and it's really, really hard to put down. If you like the movie, it's at least as good as the movie; if you don't like the movie, it's better. So I was excited to read HANNIBAL, and was happy to be reading it until its last six chapters. Until that time, I was wandering my social world defending thrillers. (You know what's great about thrillers? They're so carefully constructed to create suspense that you know you're not running into basic novelist-masturbation--you know every idea that appears is there for a reason and will be relevant to the story. Which is a really exciting way to read.) But then I got to the ending of HANNIBAL, which is one of the more sexist things I've ever read, and felt completely betrayed. Here's an incredibly strong female character in a genre usually lacking in female characters, written by a male where aforementioned rare characters are almost always written by females--but all she *really* wanted the whole time was to be taken on by a man who sees her as an equal after the true Oedipal nature of her feelings for said man, Dr. Lecter, are revealed by means of constant drugging and hypnosis. She really didn't have any integrity, any compelling interest in her actual job, etc.--she just needed the finer things in life to be revealed to her by the only man who could truly appreciate her. I felt *really* betrayed by Thomas Harris. (And really proud of Jodie Foster for turning the movie down, and really disappointed in Julianne Moore, whom I used to like but who has been making some really shittastic film choices lately.) My father points out that he was probably really, really pressured to write a sequel after the runaway success of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as a novel and a movie, probably didn't want to do it in the first place, but I found it really hard to have any sympathy. It wasn't just a bad book, it was in my view an offensive one.

This enters into what seems to be a thornier aspect of bad books/bad art in general, which is its moral universe. Every work of art exists in a moral universe it's created (though I have to admit that I follow it better in somewhat linear--i.e. not purely visual--art forms). Now can good art be made into bad art simply by means of existing in an abhorrent moral universe? Sigh . . . I *really* need to see BIRTH OF A NATION. It sort of offends me to think that aesthetic has no moral dimensions, but on the other hand how could it? I mean, everything exists in the context in which it was made, but at no one time is there only one context.

My father also believes that HANNIBAL was simply a bad book. In it Dr. Lecter was invincible, did anything he set his mind to, whereas in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS his conflicts with difficult odds were in a counterbalance--watching them shift back and forth and *then* watching him eventually win was the pleasure of reading it. In this book you knew he'd fundamentally succeed at what he decided to do at all times, the only suspense was about what he would decide to do and precisely how it would come into conflict with all these things that other people wanted to do. Which is fair, I guess, and probably I didn't notice that as much while I was reading it simply because I expect less of the genre in the first place. And that totally needs to change. There are so many elements that go into defining "genre fiction," and thus far, for example, I've really liked every sci-fi book that my unapologetic sci-fi nerd friends have instructed me to read. There just haven't been that many of 'em.

And so . . . I like bad books with bad artistry, but not bad books with bad moral universes. And yet, I'm an artist myself, and am a lot more interested in getting into debates with people whose moral universes don't precisely jive with mine to see where the overlaps are and what I can understand--basically, I see myself as a lot more judgmental (there is some debate over the spelling of this word these days--"judgmental" or "judgemental"?) in the arts than in morality/ethics/politics. I can do an *if* I believed this, *then* I can see how this that and the other politics would become more important to me and I would have voted for Bush, and I'm incapable of believing that of art. To me, bad art is ultimately just bad art, and while I can generally explain why I believe it's more fundamentally wrong to make some artistic choices than to make some political choices, which I can see as simply a disagreement, even knowing those decisions offend and frighten me and have way wider repercussions.

WTF, mate?