Friday, May 14, 2010

"Impossible to know"

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn paradoxically demonstrates the profound possibility of what might be called the impossibility of epistemological certainty explored by postmodern thought. In brief, one tenet of postmodern philosophy calls into question the stability of any knowledge that is communicated through language (an arbitrary and fluid meaning system): that is, any knowledge, period. If you want to get intense about it, that means that things like history, identity, and religion are if not abandoned, then submitted to the kind of examination that frogs receive in high school biology, usually with the same effect experienced by the frog. However, there are artists and writers and thinkers who take this basic premise--there are things we cannot know--and use it to deepen, not eviscerate, the human experience. I'm going to write about some of the other places I see this happening in later posts (Spoiler alert: Tarantino), but it's a particularly interesting lens through which to look at a memoir. In the light of some recent revelations, memoir as a genre has become a fraught and contentious field to examine what counts as "true" about the past.

The title of this post is a sort of refrain throughout Mendelsohn's book, a memoir of his attempt to uncover a sense of the lived experience of six of his family members, whose fate was communicated to him as a child by another refrain: "they were killed by the Nazis." Mendelsohn insists on the inaccessibility of some aspects of his lost relatives' lives and deaths. We cannot know what it was like to undergo such suffering: words, in fact, fail. But not quite in the way that makes such an undertaking pointless or fraudulent. It might be impossible to know, but it is not impossible, in fact, it's imperative, to pay attention. To try if not to know, then to commemorate and recognize and recover the past and the people who lived there.

When I recommended this book to my cousin, he resisted because he doesn't like reading about the Holocaust. Though this book is very much about the Holocaust, wouldn't exist without it, it is about so much more than that. It's about interpretation and storytelling and family and the way history is always already Right Now. The Holocaust is the "situation" in Beauvoir's sense of the word. The set of desperately important circumstances that shape the book, but don't utterly comprise it. The Lost expands and deepens what memoir as a genre can do. Plus, Mendelsohn is a writer so gifted it simultaneously makes me want to throw the book across the room and absorb it into my body as part of my DNA. And incidentally, I saw him speak at my college, and he is funny and simpatico and devastatingly handsome in person.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Spirit of Inquiry

Good Hair, that I awkwardly threw to in my last/first post, does something interesting both as a documentary, and as a feminist project. First, it's become quite refreshing to encounter a documentary that doesn't operate from a premise or conclusion already accepted and endorsed by the film. Now, I might agree with the political commitment of Michael Moore's films, but it seems to me they show no spirit of inquiry. From the first frame of Sicko, hell, from the preview, no one would rationally think that hey, this movie might find some positives in the American health care system. Which, fine. The Jungle needed to be written and certain elements of the American sociopolitical landscape need to be harshly critiqued. However, Moore's success seems to have spawned a slew of docu-children in which we all know where we're going to end up before we get there: e.g., Super Size Me, The Business of Being Born. However, Good Hair starts with an honest question--What is the nature of the relationship between African American women and their hair?--and comes up with what was, for me, a surprising answer.

Chris Rock, the producer and central consciousness of the movie, asks black women and black men, both famous and non- and in-, about their hair. And rather than focusing on the privileged definition of "good" (which is, no surprise here, European/white), Rock homes in on the
process of what can best be called managing hair. If he had done the former, exploring how and why (and really, if) African American women conflate "goodness" with "whiteness," I think the documentary would have slipped into the sort of self-fulfilling premise of the movies above. We can all agree that dominant beauty standards often dovetail with racial privilege, and we can all agree that this is a bad thing. But Good Hair is much more interested in what it means to devote large amounts of time, money, and emotional energy to creating and maintaining your hair as an entity that is both separate from and deeply connected to your sense of self. Because it seems that's what the women he interviews do. They buy weaves, apply harsh relaxing creams, and vigilantly police who and what has tactile access to their hair, and they don't feel a bit guilty about it. By looking at this one element of the experience of being human and female in America, the move gestures towards the way the female body is understood by many consciousnesses that inhabit one as an ongoing project, an activity rather than a stable object.

Rock's commitment to chasing down the Indian source of the human hair that comprises weaves and the spectacle of the Bronner Bros. International hair show and the economics behind selling African American hair care products becomes the engine of the movie, NOT Rock's own feelings about beauty and femininity. As a father of daughters and a husband (and a comedian) he no doubt holds some, but he lets the complexities of the personal and global politics of the question guide the film. And the movie ends up not saying much of anything definitive as to whether the young girl featured on the cover "should" be getting a perm before she hits puberty (though the power of the visual makes its own argument), or whether it's "bad" for a schoolteacher to spend a grand on a weave. The movie isn't interesting in judging the choices of individual women in that kind of crude way, which is a nice complement to the entire argument that getting your hair done has complicated social, economic, and psychological implications that resist neat categorization. The two concluding comments do come from men, which disturbs me a bit more in writing that than it did viewing it: Rock, who decided to emphasize to his daughters the importance of "what's in their heads" rather than "what's on top of them"; and Ice-T's observation, and I'm paraphrasing here, that women who aren't happy with themselves make everyone around them fucking miserable. The fucking isn't a paraphrase. I think what the movie ends up affirming is that women should be able to make their own choices about what's important to them. And it seems to me that's a really workable definition of feminism.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Defending the New

I hold a doctorate in English literature. In the course of earning and using this degree, I was and am asked to, among other things, read, discuss, and argue about texts that people earning and using degrees in English literature have read, discussed, and argued about for quite some time. And there is a reason that very smart people have said very smart things about William Faulkner and Toni Morrison and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But someone, at some point, had to risk sounding not very smart at all by asking people to pay attention to them. In Ratatouille, the critic Anton Ego says something that changed my perception of why what I do (write critical essays about literature and film) is important. Brad Bird's script reads, "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. . . . But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something . . . and that is in the discovery and defense of the new."

So. Rather than write another essay on Absalom, Absalom! (a book I deeply love, but that has been dissected to death), I would like to, for whatever it's worth, talk about things that are new. And not "serious art." That I think deserve to be taken seriously. Some of these essays might turn into conference papers or articles, but most of them probably won't. It's not easy to, for example, get an essay published on Ratatouille. And posting an anonymous blog in the abyss of the Internet is a pretty weak sauce "defense." And who am I anyway? Etc., etc., existential despair, and so on. But I am a writer who has been trained to talk about such things, and maybe it will encourage someone out there who hasn't heard of Good Hair to give it a rent. And in my next post, I'll tell you why I think you should.