Friday, October 21, 2005

The Complications You Could Do Without

This past weekend, when I visited New York, Emily gave me a mix CD she had made, which included Sufjan Stevens's "Casimir Pulaski Day." I've developed, in the course of a day, an obsession with the song. I don't think songs count as spoilers. This post may be even more abstract than what you're used to from me; congratulations if you can follow it, 'cause I'm not even sure I can.

"Casimir Pulaski Day" is a deeply intimate song about a man whose girlfriend from his youth is now dying of bone cancer. It's as sad and as inevitable as one might expect, very calm and very close and detailing love and grief, ending, after the woman's inevitable death with a musical swell and fade very much connected with the song but for which there are clearly no words. It's a personal, loving, harrowing song about an experience that I've never even had (though members of my family have), losing an ex-lover whom you still love for the role he or she has taken in your life and to whom you feel a lasting connection. It's a song that made me cry just from its content, rather than any baggage of my own on that day--the song didn't act as a release for my feelings outside the song, it in itself just made me cry. That almost never happens.

Sarah and I recently had a conversation about intimacy in art, particularly in writing, film and theater. I feel like theater is sort of required to be macrocosmic, and has a somewhat more difficult time describing and portraying intimacy than does film. There are many exceptions, of course--Pinter's Betrayal, for example, Nelson's Goodnight Children Everywhere, I could go on if that were really what I felt like thinking about--but I find intimacy in the end very concrete, and I think film has many more ways of showing the concrete and still making it beautiful than does theater. With literature and song, though, this becomes confusing. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is in the end not precisely about intimacy with another person, it's about grief and memory and inevitability, but it takes something very close to the bone and renders it accessible.

Can I say "renders it universal"? Universality is another conflict that takes up my life (ask Talia and Bri about my thesis); lately what I'm thinking is that universal themes exist and universal conclusions do not. You can never rely upon universality to predict a concrete outcome, but you can rely upon it to predict . . . a knowledge, I guess. Sufjan Stevens is describing, in vivid, loving, artistic detail, an experience. He knows that everyone feels grief at some point, though not all of us react the same way to it; he is describing his experience in the hope that we recognize it. The recognition may not be universal, but the knowledge will. That's an incomplete thought, but I'm not all that coherent. (I have three jobs and am stage-managing. I'm at one of the jobs now. The obsession with the song just drove me to blog.) I mean, can I say, universally, that everyone experiences intimacy or wants it? The definition of intimacy by which I usually operate is that it's what's between people (usually two people, but occasionally more; a fairly small number, in any case) that is not relevant to anyone else. It could apply to lovers, to families, to tribes, to any kind of love. And some people never experience love; can I safely assert that everybody wants it, that the *desire* for intimacy is universal? I don't even know how I could do that. But perhaps the knowledge of intimacy, the knowledge that that feeling is out there and is of significance, is universal.

I think good theater, at some level, has to approach intimacy from the outside. It may eventually get inside, but it has to start out. That applies even in pieces with small casts and limited literal onstage scope--In Pinter's Betrayal, for example, the form, moving backwards and occasionally forwards as it does in time, keeps us slightly out of it, and also we see the surface of Emma's relationship with each man before we learn to recognize her intimacies with each of them. Film and literature, I think, have the choice of starting inside. I think all good film and literature eventually moves outside, that you have to in order to make us care--this is a mistake made by soul-vomit artists of all genres, that just your story because it's your story is important to people other than you. Form, the acknowledgement and use of form, is a way of moving outside. Theater's form is so clear that it automatically starts outside; our perceptions of film and literature, of "getting lost" in it, are pretty different. (And once again we recognize, film and literature are much more related as forms than theater is to either one of them. At least, that's my view on the matter.)

So what about music? In Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, musical intelligence is completely separate from others. Literature, for example, would appeal to (I think--correct me on the title of this one if I'm wrong) narrative intelligence, intra- and interpersonal intelligence; theater and film as well could appeal to several intelligences put together (there are seven of them). But music has an intelligence of its own. And for someone who's very dependent on words and verbal communication, I find that in listening to songs I am hearing and reacting to the music long before I am reacting to the words. I find music an amazingly visceral experience, especially in combination with theater and film. I think that is one of the greatest contradictions in Brecht, for example. Brecht was one of the first people to render concrete the idea of the distance of audiences in theater--in some ways, the idea of approach from the outside. The basic concept behind his "alienation effect," which made him famous as an artistic theorist, is that an audience has to remain aware that they are watching a play, not being taken into another world. And yet much of his work, in particular those pieces that are judged by most critics to be his best (the later stuff, including The Threepenny Opera, The Good Woman of Setzuan, Mother Courage and Her Children and The Caucasian Chalk Circle), incorporates music. And it's my feeling that good music--and I certainly don't have the musical theory background to define at any concrete level what I think makes good music--cannot *help* but bridge distance, cannot *help* but move you into another world. Brecht wants you, in some ways, to analyze your reaction before you react; by using music, he also fucks with that, because there is no time to analyze your reaction before you react to it. Theater these days--in many ways because of Brecht--rarely aims to be purely visceral, though of course anything good is visceral in part. Music, maybe because it is its own intelligence, always hits the visceral first. Or so I, who scored high on my musical intelligence test (don't get excited, it's really just a questionnaire) but have very little musical training, think. I have never experienced anything like what "Casimir Pulaski Day" describes, but I was made to understand it and to feel it, and more through music than through words. My reaction to "Casimir Pulaski Day" was first in the journey that the music expresses. When I listened to the lyrics, I could then render concrete in my mind what the journey was--the knowledge and the acceptance of knowledge, the anticipation of grief and of missing someone without knowing you could miss them, and the lyricless swell at the end that means that even when you know something is inevitable, even when you're prepared for it, you can't really be. As Stephen Dunn, one of my favorite poets (poetry is perhaps a whole other conversation on this topic) says in "The Vanishings":

your voice fails, chokes to silence,
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

That is almost the definition of a visceral experience, that you cannot rely on knowing what you know. And yet, even without knowing what you know, it happens to you, and means something to you, anyway.

Monday, October 10, 2005

You Can Have Your Fill of All the Food You Bring Yourself

In keeping with my fixation on the right to privacy, and due to the recent prevalence of conversations about abortion in my life (sometimes topics just pop up all around you, rather like cartoon dodos), I'm coming to believe we're due not simply for a political, but for a philosophical revamp of how we approach privacy--privacy as it pertains to a woman's body, to abortion, to parenthood, and probably by extension to living in ways that do not directly pertain to reproduction. My radical feminist book club recently finished Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice; it's a clunkily written and awkward book (I'm honestly finding that the main problem with being in a radical feminist book club is that, while the conversations are interesting, we never discuss *books* for very long, it's always the topics the books are about), but in examining the political organization of women of color communities and the different ways that different communities define "reproductive justice," it led me to conclude even more definitively that the rhetoric of "pro-choice" is outdated, and perhaps was never in-dated. The constitutional argument, in fact, is part of that--the legal definitions, and the rhetoric, started out on the wrong foot.

Spoiler is The Cider House Rules. (The novel only--I've honestly very little memory of the movie.)

Now, every side of the political argument reaps the benefits of the right to privacy. In my experience, the right tends to use it more with regard to corporations and business dealings, while the left tends to use it more with regard to individualized interactions such as parenting, sex and abortion, but my experience is itself limited. I also can only trace the history of its use on the liberal side, and only with a limited number of cases--I'm not a legal scholar, I just wish I had time to be--but that in itself is pretty interesting. The constitutional right to privacy was, as I've said, created (I'm sorry, but I do think the constitutional right was created--the right itself was not) in the case Griswold v. Connecticut, decided by (I *believe*) the legendary/notorious Warren Court, and was used to validate the notion that married couples had the constitutional right to use birth control. A subsequent case, whose name I forget at the moment, extended that right to unmarried couples (and, by implication, unmarried individuals) as well, and then in 1973 those glorious emanations of penumbras were extended to cover a woman's right to an abortion, in a majority opinion written by Harry Blackmun that, even to those of us who defend the right it covers, is clearly a case of a justice creating legislation. (I'm sorry, it's just true. Read it.) In 1986, in a narrow 5-4 decision (narrower than a 5-4 would usually be because Lewis Powell disowned his vote after he retired--sadly, that was utterly useless), the right was rejected in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case in which two consenting male adults were caught engaging in homosexual sodomy, then illegal in Georgia, when the police came to Bowers's house to investigate a minor charge--breaking and entering of something of that sort. Scalia, writing the majority opinion, said that nowhere could one claim that the Constitution protects a right to homosexual sodomy (which thinking is exactly the kind of judicial reflexiveness that Roberts derided in the portion of his confirmation hearings that I saw, and why I have hope for him). In 1989 (I think), Roe received its first challenge in Planned Parenthood v. Casey; in some textbooks this decision is listed as a 3-2-4 rather than a 5-4 decision due to the weirdness of the concurring opinion, which gives you an idea of how fine is the thread by which it hung on. But the right to privacy returned to the warm sunshine two years ago in Lawrence v. Texas, which showed that if we ever really think about precedent, Bowers v. Hardwick was stupid.

I'm not certain of when exactly the rhetoric of "My Body--My Choice" came into the abortion activism picture, but if emanating penumbrae can even have a rallying cry, that would be it. And while it was in the short-term a highly effective organizing tool, it has a lot of issues for me these days. First: it simply steamrolls over the potentially legitimate concerns of its opposition, rather than engaging with them. Which of course is what a slogan is supposed to do, but at the same time it doesn't even counteract them. It has no "yes, but"; it's an absolutist slogan, absolutist in the style that I generally associate with the right wing. No matter what you have to say, it comes down to the fact that this is my body and therefore I make all the choices about it. Trump card. (Random question: did the verb "trump" come into play within the last thirty years, or is Donald Trump's name just a somewhat disarming coincidence, or did he change it because he liked the meaning of the word?) That also leads into the next, and more important, issue: to use the trump card of "My Body--My Choice" assumes that that concept makes sense, when as far as I'm concerned it has detrimental effects both on society and on the emotional life of women who have abortions. The pro-choice movement can't offer real support to women in the wake of their abortions, because then it would have to admit that abortion is difficult and often detrimental in the short term, and not simply one of multiple choices. The pro-life movement can't offer support to women who have abortions because it can't acknowledge that they deserve such support, or any support. Therefore a movement supposed to be centered on individuals isolates them and offers them nothing. Abortion is a choice; you've made tons of choices in your life, and you're supposed to have the resources to make and support your own choices. Where do those resources come from? Well, you just have them, by god. I mean, we're not really effected by anything around us, we have all these resources if only we have the strength to access them.

Fundamentally, the standard-fare rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is part of an ownership society. And an ownership society denies certain blatant things about living in a social world, things both positive and negative. It denies that people are born into situations that, through no fault of their own, effect them for better or for worse. It denies that It denies, basically, that the personal is political--oddly, since that slogan was itself a creation of the second-wave feminist movement. Or maybe that's not odd, but second-wave feminists I guess deny that it cuts both ways. If the personal is political, it follows that the personal has political impact not only on the individual's body but on the body politic. (Ten times fast, please.)

In an ownership society, you can have your fill of all the food you bring yourself; there's no regard to where you get the food that you'll bring, or how much food you're capable of carrying given certain impediments with which you were born, or whether, in the absence of your own food, you know people who have extra and might slip you a little bit under the picnic table. The ownership society decontextualizes. Period. The far left, or at least the far-ish left, has a rougher time working with this, because although they don't agree with the fundamental tenets of an ownership society, it's the paradigm within which they've no choice but to work, and therefore its rhetoric often compromises the movements it hopes to foster. I think the rhetoric surrounding "pro-choice" has gone this route.

Do we not own our bodies? I'm concerned that this is where the argument is going--that somehow it has to be absolutist. Either we control our bodies, and therefore we control what we've used our bodies, which have our brains inside them, to acquire and the government can't fuck with it or regulate it, or we control nothing and we live in Stalinist Russia, and therefore I am a commie pinko bastard. I mean, we already knew I was a commie pinko bastard, but that aside, where can the lines be drawn for this balance?

As I finish Irving's The Cider House Rules, I keep pondering the options--exactly how it is that we have to revamp this rhetoric. The novel's obstetrician, Dr. Larch, eschews the distinction between "the Lord's work" and "the Devil's work," claiming that in the society he inhabits--though the novel takes place fifty years ago, it's startlingly close to the moral climate we have today--both are "the Lord's work." The novel is the journey of an orphan living in St. Cloud's, the orphanage Dr. Larch runs, to realizing that he agrees with Dr. Larch. I can't say that I don't feel the same way. I've seen at least secondhand--okay, I've *seen* firsthand, *experienced* secondhand--the effect that having an abortion can have on individuals. It can be a tremendously psychologically dangerous process. Whether that damage is caused by the act itself or by society's perception of abortion is up for debate--in all probability, a little of column A, a little of column B. Abortions do exist in nature--rabbits, for example, are capable of giving themselves abortions within their bodies (as opposed to performed by another rabbit) should they sense danger to their developing offspring. Lucas warns me against taking biological determinism too far, and he's right, but I think it is worth mentioning that things called "unnatural" are frequently thought to be so because nature hasn't been studied closely enough. That said, and whatever its causes, abortion's not easy on women in our society. But at least as long as we remain a society that hates children, a society that assumes an individual's obligation to others is limited to the others within his/her walls, a society that starts everyone off on drastically unequal footing and expects everyone to have the same resources and abilities nonetheless, a society that glorifies sexual behavior and denies its consequences, a society where mothers are expected to do everything (whatever pissed me off about The Mommy Myth, it certainly made some good points on that last front), abortion, legal and safe, is necessary. Would we need it in a society that didn't have these godawful problems? I couldn't say, honestly; I've never been in one.

But I do think, stemming from both Undivided Rights and The Cider House Rules, that the more abortion can be treated in and connected to a context, the better off we are. This was even happening, I think, in the early days of second-wave feminism: the act of "consciousness-raising," of sharing your stories, which was a cornerstone of the second wave, is the act of connecting your own personal narrative to a larger community. "My Body--My Choice," like the ownership society, ultimately does the opposite.

Does the right to privacy do so, as well? Of that, I am honestly not sure yet. I do believe in acknowledging the differences between individuals, after all, far more even than I believe in acknowledging the difference between groups of people (for more on this, see an upcoming post on Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation). The way I've put it before is that I believe in ensembles, not communes; I don't like to say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, because I don't like reducing those who compose a whole to "parts." They are whole on their own, and they create a greater whole that no individual whole could create. For this to remain true, and it's one of the greatest beauties in the world (although perhaps also one of the most dangerous), we *need* a right to privacy; we need a society that acknowledges and respects individual skills and desires. And it needs to not emanate from penumbras; it needs to not argue with any other aspects of society. How is that possible? It's possible if we all have our sacred space and are not limited to it. Which is too poetic for me to render concrete right now, but I'm also pretty confident that it's true.