Author: Bryan

Kachina cameo

I’m still thinking about the appearance of Native American kachina dolls late in Black Hole. This morning I ventured a few thoughts off the cuff about how they invoke several relevant issues: ritual, rites of passage, community, parent/child relations, and perhaps a healing counterpoint to the fragmented Kewpie dolls strung up in the trees around The Pit/Planet Xeno in the woods.

Here are some notes I use when I lecture on Zuni origin myth in my typical American Literature survey. This is a summary of a text called “Talk of the First Beginning.” Its basic outline is shared by other Pueblo tribes’ origin stories:

Sun Father passes on his daily journey. He’s lonely. So he sends two sons, the warrior twins, to find someone to pray to him and keep him company. They go into the fourth womb of the earth. (Consider how literal this description of “Mother Earth” is.) What do they find? A group of amphibian-like people, living in utter chaos and darkness. They’re not pleasant: one of the warrior brothers lights a fire, sees an ugly fellow, and says “Poor thing! Put out the light.” The rest of the narrative is spent trying to get these creatures to the earth’s surface so they can worship Sun Father, followed by their journey to “the middle” place, which is called Zuni or Itiwana. It turns out that these creatures, which in some contexts are referred to as “raw” will eventually become the Zuni people, once they’ve become “cooked” by their exposure to the sun. So this text contains a movement from disorder and chaos—mudheads shitting and pissing on themselves in the dark—to order and ritual.

What happens next? Eventually the people move upward through three subterranean worlds or wombs, each associated with different colors, minerals, animals, plants, etc., before some—but not all—of the people finally emerge through a cavern into the sunlight and begin their journey toward a homeland.

What happens when they come into the sun? They have to confront their appearances and lack of identities. They encounter Spider Woman, who is the mother of Sun Father. She designates the first sun priest, the old man of the Dogwood clan, to guide the people.

Various things happen on their journey to the middle place, most of which help establish order, the rules by which their culture will operate: Coyote, who is always a trickster figure, gives them corn in exchange for mortality. An unnamed boy and his sister violate the incest taboo and revert to their slimy primordial state. Some of the children who fall in a magical river sink to the bottom and become kachinas. There’s a murder scenario that seeks to establish the rules of taking human life. They play a ball game as part of a contest for daylight and to establish the length of days. The warrior twins battle a giant and lead the people past ghosts. They divide into different clans and encounter other tribes. A water bug helps them establish the horizon, and finally they arrive at Itiwana, the middle, which translates as “The Middle Ant-Hill of the World.”

What I find useful here is the way in which this origin story is also a journey (which may echo the passage of Native Americans’ ancestors across the Bering Strait and down into what is now the American southwest) and also a series of transitions by which the people (uncooked mudheads) become the People (the Zuni). That movement may be paralleled by Keith and Eliza’s journey south toward Monument Valley and toward adulthood. We’ve already commented on their resemblance to other origin stories, namely Adam and Eve.

As I mentioned this morning, the kachina also invoke a process of disenchantment associated, especially in Hopi culture (another Pueblo tribe), with adolescents’ entry into the Kachina Society and, thereby, into a mature tribal membership. Is there a similar movement in Black Hole? Or does the lack of any meaningful adult relations with these teenagers preclude it? The account of the Hopi disenchantment ritual I gave this morning relied heavily on an essay I read when I was your age that has stuck with me lo these many years. I dug around a little this afternoon and found a scan of it online. Don’t feel pressured to read it for class, but if you’re interested in this tangent, here you go:

 Gill Disenchantment

Filming Ding Village

Hi, all. I hope I’m not stealing anyone’s thunder (esp. augmenters, who have yet to post) but given that we’ve got a shorter week than usual I want to direct your attention to a couple films quite relevant to Dream of Ding Village. The first is an upload (shh!) of the full feature film Love for Life (2011), alternately titled Til Death Do Us Part and Life Is a Miracle, an adaptation of Yan’s novel directed by Gu Changwei. (Yan Laoshi, listed as its first screenwriter, is apparently a pseudonym of Yan Lianke himself, according to this reviewer.)

If you’re pressed for time and would just like a taste, here’s the trailer:

Here’s an interview with director Gu Changwei from TimeOut Shanghai.

A companion documentary, Together, offers a “a behind-the-scenes look at the Chinese cast and crew’s reaction to AIDS patients who participated in the filming of Gu Changwei’s feature film.” (See this interview with director Zhao Liang. And this one.) Together is available on YouTube in six parts. Here’s the first:

Appiah, cosmopolitanism, & “contamination”

I mentioned in class today Anthony Appiah’s effort to rehabilitate the notion of “contamination,” to use it without negative connotation. Some of you are probably familiar with his book Cosmopolitanism, which tends to make the rounds at NYUAD, but here’s a nice concise version of his argument from the New York Times Magazine in 2006.

The point about culture and “contamination” has to do with how futile it is, in Appiah’s view, to “preserve” something like “cultural purity.” Culture just doesn’t work like that, he says:

Living cultures do not, in any case, evolve from purity into contamination; change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. I don’t say that we can’t change minds, but the reasons we offer in our conversation will seldom do much to persuade others who do not share our fundamental evaluative judgments already. When we make judgments, after all, it’s rarely because we have applied well-thought-out principles to a set of facts and deduced an answer. Our efforts to justify what we have done — or what we plan to do — are typically made up after the event, rationalizations of what we have decided intuitively to do. And a good deal of what we intuitively take to be right, we take to be right just because it is what we are used to. That does not mean, however, that we cannot become accustomed to doing things differently.

He brings the term up again in conclusion:

The ideal of contamination has few exponents more eloquent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” No doubt there can be an easy and spurious utopianism of “mixture,” as there is of “purity” or “authenticity.” And yet the larger human truth is on the side of contamination — that endless process of imitation and revision.

A tenable global ethics has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices. That’s why cosmopolitans don’t insist that everyone become cosmopolitan. They know they don’t have all the answers. They’re humble enough to think that they might learn from strangers; not too humble to think that strangers can’t learn from them. Few remember what Chremes says after his “I am human” line, but it is equally suggestive: “If you’re right, I’ll do what you do. If you’re wrong, I’ll set you straight.”

Note how closely the quotation from Rushdie resembles Belize’s imagined heaven in Angels:

Belize: Hell or heaven?

[Roy indicates “Heaven” through a glance]

Belize: Like San Francisco.

Roy Cohn: A city. Good. I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.

Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.

Roy Cohn: Isaiah.

Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths.

Roy Cohn: And a dragon atop a golden horde.

Belize: And everyone in Balencia gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.

Roy Cohn: And Heaven?

Belize: That was Heaven, Roy.

Does it make sense to think of Belize’s description as another example of the kind of cosmopolitanism Appiah describes? Does Belize’s emphasis on impurity, confusion, and mixing relate in some way to other elements of the play we’ve talked about — the decision to cast actors in multiple roles, for instance?

Speaking of heaven, I always think of this song when I read this play:


Kushner resources

In the several years Cyrus Patell and I taught our Writing New York course on the Square, we amassed a pretty substantial number of blog posts about Kushner and Angels. They may prove useful as you continue to wrap your heads around the play in a short amount of time this week. Here are a few of the highlights:

I typically deliver two lectures on the play, one situating it in a discussion of time/history/imagination (and thoughts on the play as a period piece set in the Reagan era), very similar to the one we had in class today, and one that highlights some of the cultural building blocks Kushner recycles in the play (Mormonism, Judaism, Marxism) by way of a discussion of the play’s several angels and angelic precedents. We’ll get into some of that on Thursday. On the WNY course site, I’ve offered my thoughts about the play’s conclusion, in which Prior breaks the fourth wall and blesses his audience, and earlier I’d written about the ways in which the play recycles a number of stories and symbols, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain among them. (Because that post has some links that are now dead, I had to post again on the prior use of Bethesda in Godspell.) Several years ago, a highlight of our course was a guided tour of Central Park at sunset (or a tour of the sunset with Central Park as a backdrop) with our favorite ex-NYC tour guide, Speed Levitch. I provided a more detailed account of that afternoon elsewhere. It’s only indirectly related to Kushner’s play, but still important if you want to think about the ways in which Central Park has long been contested public space, something Kushner’s certainly aware of when he selects Bethesda as the setting for his final scene. Here are a few links re: his use of Roy Cohn as a character. And here are some thoughts on the play’s place in the history of Broadway theater.

Cyrus has also offered thoughts on the play, which he teaches at NYUAD in his Cosmopolitan Imagination course. One year he supplemented my lectures with a few additional thoughts on Kushner’s use of New York City as a setting. But he’s written most extensively on the play’s engagement with cosmopolitanism (see this one, too, and this one).

If you’re really interested, here’s the archive of a live-tweet one of our TAs ran as I lectured last year.

Part 1:

  • Getting ready for today’s #wny11 part I of Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. Thinking abt community, identity, history, legacies of immigration. #
  • A guide to some of the Kushner-related material from our blog: #wny11 #
  • @_waterman lecturing on Angels in America today #wny11 #
  • @lwarr because @cpatell is in Abu Dhabi today; @pwhny in good hands. #wny11 #
  • Transitioning from 70s to the 80s via Patti Smith–>Grace Jones for our lecture prelude #wny11 #
  • Prior: Not a conventional woman. Belize: Grace Jones? #angels #wny11 #
  • This a pretty good history of gays in New York for anyone who’s interested #wny11 #
  • Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On is also a pretty good history of AIDS in New York and SF #wny11 #
  • Theatricality of everyday life: How do we understand performance? #wny11 #
  • Performance is also interesting when you think about tension between out and closeted gay characters. What is Roy Cohn performing? #wny11 #
  • AIDS epidemic is perfect dystopian moment for Kushner’s play. Confluence of personal and political choices and consequences #wny11 #
  • Play is also conscious of the rise political correctness and its relationship to identity #wny11 #
  • Ginsberg as a prophet figure for “Angels.” He needs to be the crazy poet yet wants to participate #wny11 #
  • What is the role of theater in mediating themes like history, identity, and community? #wny11 #
  • Watching HBO ‘Angels’ “Drag is a drag” dream sequence #wny11 #
  • Pay attention to the way Prior is always “performing:” drag, prophet, lines from movies. #wny11 #
  • “Imagination can’t create anything new, can it?” Can it? #wny11 #
  • Think about how “contamination” works in ‘Angels’ as something toxic, inexorable, and revelatory #wny11 #
  • @ultramaricon True #wny11 #
  • Feather floating represents possibility in writing for creation of new stories #wny11 #
  • New York pre-dates San Francisco as a “gay city.” See previous tweet about “Gay Metropolis” #wny11 #
  • Appiah on Contamination: “conversations that occur across cultural boundaries” #wny11 #
  • ‘Angels’ as an Early 90s period piece that reflects a post-Reagan-Bush I anxiety #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s silence on AIDS lead to people referring to the epidemic as “Reagan’s Disease” in some circles #wny11 #
  • What would Olmsted have thought of Central Park as a site for anti-nuclear bomb activism? #wny11 #
  • Reagan’s “Star Wars” looks like the cheesiest video game ever #wny11 #
  • It’s easy to laugh at Reagan’s conflation of fantasy and reality, but Kushner does some interesting things by blurring that line #wny11 #
  • Reagan as performing masculinity in ‘Angels’ in the eyes of Joe and Roy Cohn #wny11 #
  • Relationship between gay activism and gay theater in the 1960s-1970s #wny11 #
  • Think about ‘Angels’ and the history of political theater (O’Neill) and meta-theatricality (Tyler and Doctorow) #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Mondale won my kindergarten class’s mock election in 1984. I cried when Reagan won the real election #wny11 #babynerd #
  • From the Reagan doc I used in #wny11 today: NYC as a set of symbols to be mobilized by all sides: #
  • @ultramaricon Which is one reason I found the @NYTOpinionator piece on “Am Fam” to be puzzling. cc @epicharmus #wny11 #
  • RT @lwarr: @pwhny Part 1 of this Frontline series on AIDS documents the 80s and Reagan’s role in the disease #wny11 #
  • @FlyingHubcap We certainly still live with its effects. #
  • @ThirteenNY @PBS Weds 10 pm RT @cityroom Documentary Celebrates Olmsted, a Creator of Central Park #wny11 #
  • #wny07 #wny11 RT @CitySnapshots ANGELS IN AMERICA. SEE IT. #
  • Just a NY conversation rattling round my head. RT @cire_e New York Style #
  • The full American Experience doc on Reagan: #wny11 #

Part 2:

  • Wrapping up ANGELS IN AMERICA in #wny11 today. #
  • @_waterman on Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA today. #wny11 #
  • Opening music: Talking Heads, 1978-79 “Thank you for Sending Me an Angel,” “Cities,” and “Heaven.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman starting off with Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “historiographic metafiction.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play asking: “Do we make history or are we made by it”? How are we conditioned by the stories we tell about the past? #wny11 #
  • Hutcheon’s book: A POETICS OF POSTMODERNISM #wny11 #
  • Showing clip from Mike Nichols’s adaptation: Roy, Joe, and Ethel. MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, Act 3, Scene 5. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman on pre- (building Zion) and post-millennialism (apocalypse). Play’s Harper is caught between the two. #wny11 #
  • Interesting account of post-millennialism by Stephanie Hendricks: #wny11 #
  • @waterman on 4 differrent angels invoked by play. 1st: Angel of History from Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” #wny11 #
  • See W. Benjamin, ILLUMINATIONS. Kushner has acknowledged his indebtedness to Benjamin. #wny11 #
  • 2nd Angel: Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus” – #wny11 #
  • Benjamin on Klee: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned …. ” #wny11 #
  • “… while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Benjamin’s idea of “messianic time.” #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Stonewall and AIDS in light of Benjamin: catastrophic moments, one liberating, the other …? #wny11 #
  • Kushner’s play struggles with Marxist teleology, because it wants (like its character Belize) liberal progress. #wny11 #
  • Actually Benjamin and Klee’s angels are counting as 1. Second is angel who wrestles with Jacob, who then receives new name. #wny11 #
  • Jacob’s wrestling: renaming, rebirth. For Joe, also a sign of painful progress, plus he finds it erotic. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing this version of the picture: #wny11 #
  • Motif of shedding skin throughout ANGELS. #wny11 #
  • Question of Joe’s fate. Why is he excluded from cosmopolitan redemption at end? Has he committed some kind of “sin”? #wny11 #
  • NY Mag interview with Kushner from 2008: #wny11 #
  • Play’s Third Angel: Kushner stitching together bits and pieces form America’s past – Angel Moroni from Mormonism. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman show this image of Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith : #wny11 #
  • Mormon story as a rewriting of Christianity and also Judaism: a new Exodus. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing clip from HBO Angels of Harper in Mormon Center with diorama coming alive. Harper: “The magic of theater.” #wny11 #
  • Kushner and fallibilism: in what ways is ANGELS trying to learn from American traditions with which it disagrees? #wny11 #
  • 4th Angel: Bethesda Fountain. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman showing the final scene from the HBO version. Lucky, the film exists, because now he doesn’t have to read the scene … #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Because the last time he read it in class, he broke into tears, remembering his reaction to seeing the scene on stage. #wny11 #
  • @_waterman Exit Music: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Cheek to Cheek.” Over and out. #wny11 #

Camus wrap-up

Greetings from death’s door. Apologies for the loss of a day’s discussion, but my hope is that putting some of your thoughts down here will allow us to still get some closure on this novel.

Last time we finished by reading several paragraphs surrounding the death of M. Othon’s son. Our first task today was going to be a close examination of the language of that scene. You’re welcome to offer your thoughts about that specifically, but I’m also interested in posing some questions that would situate this as one in a series of death scenes, including Paneloux’s and Tarrou’s, and some off-stage deaths, including Rieux’s wife and M. Othon. Why does each of these characters die? (“We’re all going to die” isn’t an adequate answer, at least not without some elaboration.)

I also intended for us to discuss two further sections in detail: the swimming scene near the close of Part Four, and the conclusion, beginning with Rieux’s confession of authorship on p. 301. These two moments are linked by the ghost of Tarrou, we could say. How do you read the swimming scene (consider specific details)? And how do you read Rieux’s confession. Earlier in our discussion I referred to the “problem of the narrator” and Kefa suggested we might actually think of it as a solution instead. Either way, how do you read Camus’ choice here to to have the narrator wait until the last minute to disclose his identity? Or to draw, for so much of his narrative, on another character’s plague diaries?

Finally, I want to return to an issue Diana raised in class last time — the question of relativism. Is that a fair description of this novel’s ethics? If not, how else would you describe the kind of living this text seems to advocate? Are all the characters’ responses to the plague equally valid? I’d like to hear what you make of Grand’s closing comments, especially this: “But what does that mean — ‘plague’? Just life, no more that that.”

[Illustration via]

Visconti’s Mann

Because we brought up the 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice I thought I’d post a few related bits here. First is the film’s official trailer:

Next is the brief “making of” documentary:

Third is a very odd set of clips from the film, all bits involving lascivious/coquettish glances exchanged with Tadzio. SPOILER: It includes the death scene. Note that Visconti’s Aschenbach even looks a little like the person in Kefa’s post below. Ouch.

A contemporary review of the film had this to say about Visconti’s adaptation:

In the hands of Luchino Visconti, Aschenbach is instead the “weak and silly fool” for whom Mann’s Aschenbach showed little sympathy in his ironically titled novel The Abject. Where Mann’s Aschenbach approached tragic dimensions as an artist larger than life whose fall presaged the fall of his epoch, Visconti’s is a repressed, priggish gentleman whose infatuation with an exquisitely lovely adolescent boy reflects more ignominy than irony. Far from Mann’s distinguished author, he is a whining, whimpering man in need of smelling salts.

Full text via JSTOR. For one of many longer considerations of the relationship between film and novella, try this.