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Game of Thrones, The Thirty Years War and Violent Force in the Vacuum of Authority

June 23, 2016 1 comment

It is a consistent axiom of human civilization that authority is both relied upon and mistrusted, that its breakdown is wished for and feared in practically equal measure. Political movements, waves of protest, and cultural voices criticize the status quo, call for its dismantling, and puncture the elite’s ever-inflated balloon even as political party structures, entrenched bureaucracies, and stability-obsessed chambers of commerce emphasize a stay-the-course trajectory.

All of these superficially opposing but subtly reinforcing elements are baldly visible in the current American presidential election, for instance: on the Democratic Party side, Bernie Sanders appeals to more militant progressives who seek to topple the beknighted neoliberal consensus of slippery Wall Street financiers and national security hawks represented by Hillary Clinton, while amongst Republicans Donald Trump’s crude nationalistic nativism and seasoned property grifter’s self-aggrandizement has set the party’s rabidly white nationalist base against its cynical plutocratic leadership structure. Both Sanders and Trump have made serious hay with activist-minded voters on either extreme of the political spectrum by promising an overthrow of an unjust and broken system, but their exertions are unlikely to produce any more immediate result than the election of another neoliberal dynast to the White House.

Neither Trump nor Sanders would seriously deliver the sort of revolution that they intermittently pledge to instigate in their campaign rhetoric, but what might a shattering of the established order of power as we know it in the democratic capitalist West look like, and what sort of order (temporary or permanent) would fill the void? Both recorded history and historically-inflected genre entertainment suggest an alternative authority: organized violence.

HBO’s pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones wraps up its sixth season this weekend, and its vision of a fracturing medievalist power structure on the continents of Westeros and Essos, of traditional norms of legitimacy of authority failing, is characterized by that order’s incipient successor, the application of force. In Westeros, the centralized feudal authority of the crown based on the enforced fealty of cowed vassals (symbolized by the Iron Throne, forged from the captured swords of defeated lords) is weakened by the increasingly openly-questioned legitimacy of the Baratheon line of kings (the past two of which have been incestually-produced pure-blood Lannisters, a powerful noble house but not yet a royal one). This weakness is leveraged to the advantage of a savvy GOT1religious leader and political operator, Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow, backed by a literal army of armed zealots known as the Faith Militant.

But outside of the capital city of King’s Landing, the contentious intrigues between church and state have little positive effect on wider social stability. Prosperous feudal estates (like Horn Hill, Samwell Tarly’s family seat) and fortified bastions (like the Eyrie, the stronghold of the Vale) maintain a measure of calm, but elsewhere might makes right. The Riverlands, unsettled since House Frey’s coup against the ruling House Tully in the infamous Red Wedding, have been recaptured by a Tully army and troubled by the guerrilla activities of the independent fighting band, the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose members sometimes branch out into pillaging and massacres of the defenseless.

In the North, meanwhile, insurgent Stark-led forces (captained by Sophie Turner’s increasingly subtle Sansa Stark and Kit Harrington’s heroic but blindly honourable Jon Snow, whose dim uprightness has already got him killed once) do battle with the Boltons who succeeded the wolf-headed clan as Wardens of the North, whose openly cruel reign of terror across the North is personified by the sociopathic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). The pitched medieval battle between the two sides left a literal pile of bodies in its wake in the most recent episode, a visceral, graphic expression of the recourse to violence and death in an unsettled power vacuum.

All of the Westeros-based players on Game of Thrones are, in their own ways, struggling to establish themselves within a power structure whose long-held assumptions are stumbling. Further east and north, however, lie even greater forces marshalling violence with the intention of apocalyptic overthrow. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought the centuries-old slaveowning order of Slaver’s Bay in Essos to heel with loyal armies and burnt its remnants to ashes with dragonfire, but intends this military conquest and sociopolitical transformation to be a mere prelude to “breaking the wheel” of the successive dynastic rule of noble houses in Westeros. In the frozen far north, the White Walkers and their army of zombiefied wights is incrementally proceeding south towards the inhabited southern reaches of Westeros, bringing a winter of discontent that threatens not merely the political order of a certain historical context but all life itself.

If Game of Thrones is a fictional exploration of how violent force and those who wield it most effectively can displace the political traditions and diplomatic compromises of an atrophied system of authority, then the complex, dispiriting arc of the Thirty Years’ War shows how the interwoven tapestry of those elements can predestine a social and humanitarian disaster. As detailed with concise but complicated power by historian C.V. Wedgwood in her seminal one-volume 1938 book, this legendarily destructive and protracted conflict in 17th-century Central Europethirtyyearswar (which might have claimed up to 8 million casualties) had causes in the then-century-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants and the dynastic rivalry between the Bourbons who ruled France and the Habsburgs who reigned in Spain and the shrinking Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which the war morphed into the state that would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would only fall in World War I). But its horrible results were the tragic consequence of the reduction of existing nodes of authority within Germany and the normalization of plundering men-at-arms extracting their wages and rations (indeed, their very survival) from the largely defenseless civilian populations of the territories they marched through. Hence the Latin phrase associated with the practices of army support during the war, bellum se ipsum alet: “the war will feed itself.”

Continental Europe’s strongest centralized states of France and Spain fought proxy battles in Germany through allies and satellite states; the conflict might have had animating religious dimensions initially, but the Thirty Years’ War increasing became a hot flare-up of a long-running cold war between Bourbon and Habsburg. From the early days of the war in 1618 until its conclusion with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the most powerful players in the saga were those who could raise, support, and command armies: soldiers of fortune like Ernst von Mansfeld and Ottavio Piccolomini, quasi-feudal warlords like Albrecht von Wallenstein and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, even an energetic, warlike monarch like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Their importance as military commanders overrode diplomatic influence or aristocratic privilege, and they became so practically untouchable and necessary to any success in the field that any excess of control by them or plunder and rapine on their armies’ part, while not precisely forgiven, could not be punished or held to account by any secular or ecclesiastical authority not superior to them in arms (and basically none of them were).

The ground-level results of this tyranny of force in the Germany of this time, chronicled with frequent hyperbole sprinkled with grains of truth, were of a severity and horror that echoed the fancifully shocking miseries of Game of Thrones. Theft and pillage, rape and murder, torture, sieges, massacres, starvation, plagues, ruined crops and slaughtered livestock, and occasional battlefield abattoirs (all of these are more were depicted in an infamous series of etchings by Jacques Callot). In short, human suffering. Whether explored as thematic entertainment on television or recorded as narrative history, this is the end result of upheavals that diminish established authority. Revolutions are ever attractive in the ideological abstract but the overthrow of existing power structures that does not empower those most willing to wield ruthless force has not yet been performed. Both Game of Thrones and the Thirty Years’ War provide a dire case study of human nature in the absence of moderating social and political forces to discourage violent pillage and exploitation of weakness.

Not a Mirror But a Window: The Unfamiliar 14th Century

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

It’s a common enough approach to contemporary history writing to focus, at least for framing purposes, on the similarities, echoes, and lessons that the events of the past provide in relation to our current social, cultural, and political reality. There is an emphasis on what history can tell us about how we live now, and about how we may live in the near future. But though the past never leaves us, it is also its own creature. The core contexts, perspectives, base assumptions, and fundamental realities of life in other eras as documented and imparted in historical non-fiction and fiction are not simple mirrors on our own modern world, however distant. History is a window that looks upon a landscape of human civilization that is often unfathomably alien to our own experience, and gazing through that frame has intellectual value beyond application to current conditions.

This effect is discernable in both a seminal novel and a sweeping one-volume history of 14th Century Europe: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Both texts may seem like square peg examples to slot into the round hole of an argument about the bedrock unfamiliarity of history. Eco’s debut novel, his best-known and later adapted for the screen with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, transposes the quintessentially 20th-century literary genre of the detective story to a 14th Century Benedictine monastery in the Italian Alps, drawing liberally on contemporary academic theory and semiotics as well as on sensationalist subject matter. Tuchman’s magisterial history, which utilizes French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy as a central figure at once representative of his time and place and oddly exceptional, draws an implicit titular comparison between the horrors of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Battle of Nicopolis and the mass disasters of the 20th Century.

But both books are, in their own peculiar ways, about the notable peculiarity of the 14th Century, about its fundamental alterity in comparison with our own time. Stacked around Eco’s murder mystery, and indeed intimately related to it, are detailed descriptions of fanciful nameoftherosemedieval art depictions of the Apocalypse, accounts of countercultural quasi-monastic dissent movements, digressions into theological debates about the nature of good and evil and faith and doubt, as well as more esoteric clerical matters. The Name of the Rose is invested at least partly in the demystification of the Middle Ages, but any text with historical accuracy in mind will dispel the ren faire mist of chivalry and noble romance with a strong, stiff breeze. The cloistered monastic world of Eco’s story and characters, not insular exactly but certainly encircled and communal and intensely scholarly, is of a different sort of milieu than the fantasy of swordplay and courtly love anyway.

Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror takes up the banner of demolishing the chivalric myth, however, and does its job thoroughly. The France of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (who lived from 1340 to 1397) was denuded by roving, foraging, pillaging armies and, during the frequent truces between the French and the English, by military companies of the discharged soldiers, who operated as brigands or mercenaries, depending on the profit opportunities offered by each option at any given time. In the absence of a standing national army or effective security or police force, the protection of the land and the populace fell to the nobility. Indeed, war and defence (along with diplomacy) were their only serious useful functions in society, and the basis of their privileges of land ownership, influence with the crown, and exemption from taxation.

But again and again in this period, the nobility of France had proven either unwilling or unable (or both) to fulfill their duty in protecting the people, and the people rose in mass revolt on both sides of the channel (in France, the Jacquerie; in England, the Peasant’s Revolt) at least partly in protest of this broken covenant. The denuding of the countryside by war, brigandage, plague, and excessive taxation did not stop the King and his nobles from engaging in lavish pageantry, aristocratic pursuits like falconry and the tournaments that were the era’s prime sporting spectacles. Neither did the Church, also exempt from taxation and increasingly absorbed in the buying and selling of ecclesiastical services and even salvation itself that would lead directly to the permanent schism of the Protestant Reformation, offer sufficient succour or comfort.

Tuchman recognizes that it is the poor who always suffer most in times of turmoil, and that the failure of society’s institutions holds dire consequences for society’s most vulnerable. These are deep-seated truths applicable to many adistantmirrorperiods in history, our own included, but the weight of their primacy is not an impossible burden to the lives of those people. Tuchman summons kaleidoscopic detail of quotidian life and belief, women’s experiences, fashions, theatrical innovations, military systems, engineering practices, religious dogma and practice, and of course the large-scale political developments that fill the chronicles that are her primary sources. But the peasants and poorer classes did not simply live admirably amidst great suffering. They lashed out at those weaker than they were in terrible pogroms against the Jews in their communities, persecutions often encouraged by the clerical and lay authorities that wished to redirect ire from their own heads but not against the grain of popular sentiment. As Eco’s Sherlock Holmes-esque monastic detective Brother William puts it at one point in The Name of the Rose, “When your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies.”

It’s probably most accurate to state that The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror paint particular but robust portraits of 14th Century life in Europe while also respecting and mainting the distance and alterity of that era of history relative to our own. The monks of Eco’s novel see their scholarly achievements burn away to nothing, kindled by their intellectual pride and rational certainty. The French knights of Tuchman’s popular history see their glory and prestige dashed against the rocks of an ill-conceived conflict with little-understood Muslims from the Middle East. These texts contain lessons for both sides of our contemporary political spectrum, but the worlds they spring from and the forces both great and small that catalyzed them stand on their own, apart from our experience and perhaps our understanding. Great texts can balance these seemingly contradictory implications, and The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror achieve that balance beautifully.

Categories: History, Literature, Religion

TV Quickshots #25

February 14, 2016 Leave a comment

War and Peace (BBC; 2016)

The BBC’s new serialized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling epic novel of aristocratic love and suffering in the time of Russia’s war against Napoleon was a massive critical and popular hit in Britain and has also aired on this side of the Atlantic on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel. And for good reason: cannily scripted by Andrew Davies (best known for penning the widely-beloved Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice for the Beeb in the mid-1990s) and directed ably by Tom Harper, this was lavish, spectacular, wondrously acted and tremendously well-conceived television that did fine credit to what may be the greatest novel ever written.

At six-and-a-half hours, this War and Peace took less than half of the time to tell its panoramic decade-long story as the BBC’s last kick at this particular Russian literary can back in 1972. Indeed, in running time, approach, sensibility, and aesthetic swirl, the 2016 BBC War and Peace is closest to Sergei Bondarchuk’s seminal Soviet-era film version, although it focuses its emotional surges for more shameless impact than the 1967 seven-plus-hour multi-part movie did, invested with a certain chilly Communist calculation as it was. Of course, seeing as war-and-peaceBondarchuk’s marathon production spanned six years, allowed characters to age noticeably as they would have over a 10 years of the novel’s events, and had more extensive access to Russian historic sites and heritage props than did the new BBC version (not to mention the virtually unlimited funding of a national propaganda system), its authenticity cannot really be challenged. Bondarchuk also allowed both the narrative of Napoleon’s attack on Russia in 1812 and the central romantic triangle between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played here by James Norton), Count Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), and Natasha Rostova (Lily James) more room to breathe and develop (at the expense of the novel’s other rich subplots, it must be said). If this new War and Peace has a weakness, it lies in the rapid, seemingly coincidental stacking-up of dramatic incident resulting from the otherwise laudable decision to include as much of the book material as possible. Things happen at a pace that can seem almost frantic at times, and emotional heft can sometimes be a casualty of this arrangement.

If this is a weakness of the Davies/Harper War and Peace, it has very few others. Magnificently shot and designed on the basis of art history, suffused with telling detail and a certain Anglicized version of Russian robustness, with an utterly fantastic score full of resonant Eastern Orthodox choral music, War and Peace is a technically handsome production that rises into transcendence at moments both expected and unexpected. It includes and nicely stages more of the novel than I would have thought possible, including a higher percentage of the subplot of Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden), Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley), and her father the old Prince Bolkonsky (Jim Broadbent) than any adaptation of similar length has yet managed to allocate space for. Broadbent, who has never been anything less than enjoyable onscreen, is an inspired choice to embody the old Prince’s peevish cruelty and strained levity, but Buckley is truly remarkable, finding the glowing soul inside Marya’s sadness and piety that the boyish Nikolai falls for (Lowden is overwhelmed by his hairdo and hussar’s wardrobe). The wrenching but idiosyncratic moment between Marya and her dying father, maybe my favourite single episode in the book, even makes the cut, though its affect falls prey to the rushed pace of the plot.

Still, War and Peace is about the central romance and its harsh contrast with the destructive war, and this BBC serial is stronger with the former than the latter. With a CG assist, the battles have a convincing scope, though they aren’t a scratch on Bondarchuk’s breathtaking sweep (not that the Beeb could muster the Red Army for their cameras, mind you). Norton, Dano, and James are all excellent, and their key moments, their hopes, joys, pains, and epiphanies, are sympathetically and movingly rendered. The climax of the triangle receives the pause of beautiful reflection that much of the series lacks and begs for, and along with the series’ closing scene comes closest to visually approximating Tolstoy’s fair-minded philosophy of big-hearted humanism.

What this War and Peace gets most vitally correct about Tolstoy’s classic is the flip-side of its greatest weakness. The enforced haste of its compression also gives this century-and-a-half-old story a verve and dramatic momentum that no filmed adaptation has quite managed to capture. Despite its 1,200-page sprawl and frequent digressions into amateurish historical theorizing, what strikes the reader about War and Peace is its surprising vitality and vividness. Dialogue crackles with wit and emotional intensity, hunts and sleigh rides are interludes of exhilaration, battle sequences as are frightening and adrenaline-fueled as Hollywood action movies. The BBC pares down War and Peace to its essentials (plus a little more), and the result is not only lavish and spectacular but potently real and enervated. A new high bar has been set for historical-literary drama on television, and it’s an effort not to be missed.

Scott & Bailey (ITV; 2011-Present)

Scott & Bailey is a sturdy police procedural made of superficially similarly feminist materiel as the much more gripping and challenging The Fall. The series runs the travails of the contemporary British woman through a cop-shop setting and the populist mainstream melodrama milieu of Northern England, specifically Manchester in this case.

As such, it stars a former Coronation Street mainstay, Suranne Jones, as Detective Constable Rachel Bailey, who investigates cases for the Major Incident Team of the Manchester Metropolitan Police (a force which does not exist) alongside sister-in-arms DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) under the command of DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). Jones as Bailey seems to have transplanted a set of soap opera personal problems to this more straight copper drama, struggling to keep her police work on track between an unhealthy relationship with a duplicitous solicitor (Rupert Graves) in Series 1, a troubled brother in Series 2, and a lower-class mother in Series 3. Scott, meanwhile, tries to balance work and raising her kids while enduring her maddening husband and fending off persistent advances from office colleague Andy Roper (Nicholas Gleaves). And, of course, there are always murders to solve, too.

Scott & Bailey may telegraph its murder mysteries and indeed most of its plot turns, but the appeal of these television packages tends to lie in the chemistry of their leads (which is reasonably ample) and the crackle of its writing (which is snappy enough). Scott and Bailey, and Murray as well, encounter any number of patriarchal and misogynistic obstacles and irritations, from the criminals they investigate as well as from the men they work with, date, marry, are related to, or befriend. They parry and sometimes painfully absorb these blows with a particular strength of character and thick skin that England’s popular culture has long associated with the grey industrial North, yes. But Scott and Bailey build up a collective defence from each other’s support and competence as well. Like the stockaded early medieval castle that their combined names in the show’s title puns upon, this female detective team fortifies itself against external threats and nuisances.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Macbeth (2015)

January 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Macbeth (2015; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy Macbeth is rapturously shot, compellingly stark, and acted with a visceral and earthy tone, redolent of partial immersion in the uncomfortably moist sensation of a dangerous bog. Shot by white-hot young DP Adam Arkapaw (True Detective, Top of the Lake), this might be the most astoundingly gorgeous screen version of this weird and ugly play ever made. Sweeping wide shots of majestically craggy Scottish landscapes alternate with smoky battles and annunciations punctuated by artfully elongated drips of blood and saliva. Stone castles and cathedrals give way to foggy heaths and fields suffused in reds and golds, crepuscularly brushed with weak northern sunrays. This is a thoroughly ravishing Macbeth that nonetheless never forgets to be the dirty, nasty, mud-splattered slaughterhouse that it must be as well.

Kurzel and Arkapaw serve notice very quickly of their visual and dramatic approach to the material with a stunning battle sequence that manipulates the space and time within the frame with magnificent aesthetic effect. Impressive camerawork and editing is said to render violence as beauty far more often than it actually manages to do onscreen, but this scene is truly war as art, a sublime slaughter that is no less terrible for its beauty. It demonstrates the exquisite balance and rugged abandon in equal measure, and it sets a definite tone for all that is to come.

What is to come is the familiar narrative of prediction, murder, usurpation, and inevitable downfall, but grounded in a parochial medieval context of maximum brutality. The Shakespearean text is treating not as reverently-approached holy writ to be recited verbatim in complete but as source material for dialogue, a storehouse of finely-crafted word-tools with specific functions, like a thrusting sword or a household prayer icon. The performances, especially from Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, are strong indeed, but occupy the position of subordinate parts to a greater vision on greater themes. Showboating, such a tempting thespianic vice in the face of such florid language and richly sweeping tragedy, is a kept at a minimum, as is any sneaking lining of dark humour (Macbeth’s unhinged behaviour when faced with a ghostly visitor at a packed banquet offers no respite of laughs, as it sometimes does in other versions).

The problem with crafting a screen Macbeth that is this stoically convincing and fundamentally self-serious is that the Scottish Play is loaded with elements that put a great strain on modern audience’s suspension of disbelief. Cackling witches stirring cauldrons and telling vague fortunes, spectral visions of dead men and floating daggers, and a climactic double-shot of deflating prophecy. One could argue that Macbeth‘s weird (wyrd?) characteristics deepen and peculiarize the grand tragic themes of ambition, lust for power, and moral descent, but one could just as easily argue that they detract from those themes. This text may be central to the English literary canon but it’s a bit silly sometimes, innit?

Kurzel, working from a screenplay by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, deals with Macbeth‘s hoary supernatural elements and prophetic resolution cheats by normalizing them, rooting them in a sense of physical and psychological reality. Rather than haunting Fassbender’s Macbeth solely with by shaken bloody locks of the ghost of Banquo (Paddy Considine), the thane confrère that he has unceremoniously whacked in a mad effort to safeguard his potential dynasty, the blood-soaked Scottish king and his power-hungry Lady are beset by any number of unsettling apparations giving spectral form to their regrets, crimes, and desires. A dead Macbeth child opens the film and later reappears at the conclusion of Lady Macbeth’s “out damned spot” monologue in an abandoned country chapel, prefacing the subsequent horrors committed by its grasping parents in a crushing grief. The early battle won for King Duncan (David Thewlis) by Macbeth and his cohort includes numerous slain boy soldiers, one of which re-appears later to remind Macbeth that the depth of his moral guilt infects even his great deeds, holding the ghostly dagger that he sees before him. Even the witches drop in for visits at key moments in the final act tragedy, one of them holding the swaddled infant that the Macbeths have lost along with their moral compass.

The film’s resonant treatment of at least one of the many prophecies that the witches pronounce upon Macbeth rescues it from a costly last-act deflation. Many an imaginative reader, most notably a young J.R.R. Tolkien, was filled with excited anticipation at the prophecies that Macbeth would not fall until the forest of Birnam Wood comes to his castle of Dunsinane and that he could not be killed by any man of woman born, only to be disappointed by the fulfillment of these predictions by soldiers with branches in their caps and Mama Macduff’s C-section. Kurzel doesn’t deal with this potential pitfall with Tolkien’s spectacular one-up-manship, true, but his solution is perhaps more elegant: Malcolm’s army burns the wood, the embers drifting up to Macbeth on the ramparts and the flames’ red glow providing the backdrop for the final dust-up between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris), during which Macduff’s “untimely ripped” line lands like a vicious battlefield taunt.

Whatever the how and the why, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a tremendous aesthetic experience. Had I managed to see the film prior to the end of last year, it would certainly have found a spot high in my list of 2015’s best cinematic offerings. How it rates in relation to four centuries of adaptations of the Scottish Play, I am certainly not qualified to comment upon. But it distills influences, fashions, and aesthetic textures both historical and contemporary into a heady brew of a drama that will not soon fade, a film full of sound and fury that signifies very much indeed.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Beasts of No Nation

December 3, 2015 3 comments

Beasts of No Nation (2015; Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga)

What are we resolved to make of Beasts of No Nation? Directed and personally shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective), adapted by Fukunaga from Harvard-educated Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name (which borrows its title from an album by Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti), Beasts of No Nation is, in most ways, a remarkable film. The story of a West African boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is captured by and pressed into the ranks of a rebel army full of child soldiers and led by a charismatic but manipulative Commandant (Idris Elba), it’s frequently visually astonishing, wonderfully acted, and challenging, wrenching, and painfully sad. But it’s also emotionally cynical and sociopolitically sensationalist, bartering away its considerable aesthetic heft more often than it should in exchange for its target audience’s complicity in collaboratively experiencing an “authentic” cinematic expression of the apparently hopeless plight of modern Africa.

Like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, I can’t shake the echoes of Joseph Conrad’s deeply problematic but nonetheless vital monument of Western literature about Africa in particular and colonialism in general, Heart of Darkness, that resonate through the chambers of Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Agu’s journey in the Commandant’s retinue is a shadow of Marlow’s upriver penetration into the horror of the Belgian Congo, and Elba plays the Commandant as an African heir to the brutal feudal lord that Marlow finds there, the colonial boss gone horribly wrong (or insidiously right), Kurtz. But thematically and narratively, this reflection of Europe’s dominant literary model of the African paradigm implies a century-long discursive stasis that the rapid and unpredictable changes in the real-world African continent has lapped many times over. And yet, Africa’s footsteps continue to be haunted by the ghost of Conrad’s work and its profound but disturbing (and limiting) implications.

O’Hehir offers numerous examples of alternate films that present contemporary African life (and even Fukunaga’s specific subject of child soldiers) with a greater breadth and depth of insight, and the recommendations are worth pursuing. But those films are not streaming on Netflix like Beasts of No Nation, and do not feature a rapidly-rising Afro-Briton star like Elba prowling like a shrewd big cat and intoning mantras of twisted militarized collectivism to his pubescent legion. This is an African story that will be noticed, that will be consumed and considered and whose assumptions will be recognized and internalized by a mostly white audience in the industrialized, democratic-capitalist West.

What are those assumptions? The deflating permanence of brutal violence and organized disorder, the exploitation of weakness and desire, the impotence of decency and kindness, and the hegemony of fear, superstition, and predatory plunder. They are Conrad’s assumptions, too, arranged into a penetrative quest narrative construction that is also inescapably a descent into madness and darkness and savagery. Beasts of No Nation doesn’t begin that way. It commences with a sunny prelude of Agu’s innocent bliss in the midst of general poverty that is both a stereotype and the closest thing to a true expression of quotidian African life that Fukunaga has to offer. Agu and his friends run around with the wooden frame of a television set (we see the electronic components standing naked in his family’s home later on), offering to sell this dream machine and then re-enacting scenes from popular entertainment genres for the observer staring through the open space in the frame. It’s a simple but resonant device for expressing an idea of a culture whose dream-fulfillment is its own responsibility but has been left with only remnants of its former colonial hegemon’s expansive cultural and industrial infrastructure to work with.

Agu’s joy is encroached upon and his family is divided into inaccessible refugees and corpses by a brutal civil war, and he is swallowed by the jungle into which he flees, where he falls in with Commandant’s cult-like batallion of irregulars. The Native Defense Force, as they are called, initiates Agu into its ranks via propagandistic discourses, call-and-answer chants, and a tribal spiritual ceremony of mystical bloodthirst (the initiates pass under an arch crowned with human skulls to undergo the liminal ceremony, the clearest nod to Conrad in the film). He also must kill a man by burying a machete in his skull, an image both provocatively true of certain chaotic segments of Africa and purely, off-puttingly lurid. Fukunaga lingers on the scene with portent, daring us to parse the differences. Commandant also keeps his troops in line with buttered words and queasy abuses, including hallucinogenic narcotics. The latter memorably affect Agu’s perception during a vicious assault on an unfriendly village, as the foliage shifts to a sickly crimson tinge as the bloodshed commences (an uncredited borrowing of Irish artist Richard Mosse’s striking tinted photography of African combatants).

Without spoiling too much, Agu emerges from this ordeal intact but deeply changed (although the amazing and naturalistic Attah doesn’t play this landing on a safe shore as any species of redemption), like, one might extrapolate, Africa did from colonialism. But has Africa emerged from colonialism at all? Perhaps in some places, at some times, but then reducing a whole continent of over a billion people to the same determinist set of historical experiences and sociopolitical obstacles is just another form of the discriminatory constructions and damaging stereotypes that justified Europe’s sustained pillaging of Africa in the first place (and perhaps still does). Are cultural texts like Beasts of No Nation, as aesthetically powerful and vaguely well-intentioned as they are, small-scale catalysts in the drawn-out and difficult process of aiding Africans in dispelling the spectres of colonial brutality that continue to haunt them, or are they a contiguous portion of those persistent assumptions? Does a film like this serve to overcome, or does it need to be overcome itself?

For Joseph Conrad at the end of the 19th Century, the answers to these sorts of questions did not present themselves readily in the Africa of the moment. For Cary Joji Fukunaga in the early years of the 21st Century, they still do not. Is this a failure of these artists’ imagination or a statement of their subject’s ineffable complexity and inscrutable obscurity? Maybe a bit of both, although Conrad’s text at least grasps the gnawing anxiety of the unknown and unknowable and enfolds that feeling of philosophical emptiness into the nastier pits of despair and malignancy lurking deep in the Congolese jungle.

In both Heart of Darkness and Beasts of No Nation, brutality survives and thrives where deprivation strangles hope, and organized violence and plunder (the colonial legacy to trump all others) grow like trees watered by blood. The dark metaphorical revelation for a reader of Conrad’s time was that while Marlow expected to discover that Africa’s black core had perverted the trader Kurtz, what he finds is that Kurtz and his ilk brought a greater share of the darkness to those lands themselves. This history is distant but not unglimpsed in Beasts of No Nation, a film more concerned with the delayed aftershocks of that history on the identity and psychology of modern Africans than how the politics and society of modern Africa was shaped by it.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing and the Liminal West

November 4, 2015 Leave a comment

The concept of liminality has come into more popular usage from anthropological terminology. There it indicates a specific stage of religious or spiritual rituals in which the participant deconstructs his or her identity in relation to the society or culture to which they belong and which erects that imagined palace of belonging on the basis of the ritual. The liminal period vibrates with a sense of limbo, the liminal space defined as a purgatory-like way-station, an interval of transition for the self between an established relational trajectory to the subject’s community and the altered trajectory to that community that awaits on the other side of the ritual. Liminality’s meaning has generalized as it has entered more widespread usage, but even less precise applications carry the essence of its anthropological dimension.

The Last Crossing, the 2002 novel by Saskatchewan writer Guy Vanderhaeghe, is a nested narrative of the liminal wherein a journey through the vast uncivilized spaces of the West is the ritual of formation (and re-formation, and de-formation). Two thelastcrossingEnglish brothers surnamed Gaunt, the arrogant former military man Addington and the more decent and sensitive painter Charles, set off on the nearly-cold trail of a third, vanished brother, the stubborn and pious Simon, who was last seen in the expansive no man’s land between present-day Montana, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Guided by the legendary half-Native, half-Scottish frontier figure Jerry Potts, the Gaunts are accompanied by a hack writer named Ayto suckling on Addington’s thirst for heroism and glory and the imperious Lucy Stoveall, who believes that the suspected murderer of her beloved sister may be at large in the vicinity of Simon’s area of disappearance. They are followed by a proud, determined Civil War vet named Custis Straw, who has pined after Lucy for many a day, and his friend, a no-nonsense Irish barkeep called Aloysius Dooley. This motley band of voyageurs are all after different things, are all participating in their own specific rituals, disconnected from whatever community it is that they are supposed to belong to. All find what it is they are after, in one form or another, in a daunting wilderness that is itself traversing an uncertain threshold between two states, two eras of history and human development.

There are many crossings in The Last Crossing that could be construed as the “last”. The Gaunt brothers cross the ocean to search for something vital that they cannot find in England: Simon seeks spiritual meaning and becomes lost, in a sort of permanent limbo, while Charles and Addington ostensibly cross the Atlantic to look for Simon but have other objectives to this ritual journey as well. The crossing of the then non-existent border between the relatively settled United States and the sparsely habitated British-held and First Nations-patrolled lands of Canada is undertaken without notice, and it will not be the last. Death, which comes for us all and for some of these characters in the novel’s purview, is an obvious reference point, conceived of in Greek mythology as a literal crossing of the River Styx between this world and the world of the dead.

This liminal “death” crossing is shared by the old order of the West making way for undeniable settlement and civilization, exemplified by the cultural destruction of the First Nations, denuded by smallpox and warfare, demolished by alcohol, confined to reservations. Jerry Potts, a half-breed, a mediator between white and Native realms, never entirely belonging in either, is the guide through a space of churning liminality that only he can navigate smoothly. The white characters that he shepherds along on the meandering journey through the wild spaces of the West are re-made (or un-made) in blood rituals that leave them irrevocably changed: Straw on a Civil War battlefield (The Wilderness, natch), Addington in a primal encounter with a grizzly bear, Simon sheltering inside a dead horse in a snowstorm.

Vanderhaeghe’s prose is most poetic when it describes the immortal landscape of the West, which confounds the trained hand of the artist Charles Gaunt but not so the seasoned hand of the author. But the beauty of his words resides fitfully in the transitional ambiguity of the liminal West, where civilization both European and Native American shifts its identity, sheds its past self with the expectation of emerging, new and greater than before, at the end of the crossing. But The Last Crossing dwells in elegiac ambiguity, suggesting that the crossing is never completed and is, in this way, the last. The settlement of the North American West is not a ritualized crucible from which modern life emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis. For Guy Vanderhaeghe, the West is a liminal space from which we have never emerged to reconnect with a prior community, and modern life persists in this stasis of unsettled disorientation.

Categories: History, Literature, Reviews

Rome According to Robert Hughes: A Piecemeal History

October 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Summarizing the history, culture, art, and politics of 3000+ years of the “Eternal City” of Rome in a single 500-page volume ought to be considered a folly worthy of an excessive hedonistic Roman emperor. As it happens, the folly belongs to the highly-regarded art critic, popular historian, and cultural critic Robert Hughes, and it is no complete folly by any stretch of the imagination. But it is uneven and episodic, its segues often awkward, with different periods of Roman history (especially the millennium-long stretch of the Middle Ages) accorded less emphatic perspective than others. This is to say nothing of the persistent accusations of mistakes and inaccuracies in the section on classical Rome, first noted by Mary Beard in her Guardian review of the UK release of the book but left troublingly uncorrected in the subsequently-published US edition.

Maintaining a consistent quality of observation and insight on a city with such a varied and deep legacy would be a task beyond even a scholar in his prime. Hughes, hughesromehobbled by a serious car accident in his native Australia years before and fighting a long illness that would claim his life about a year after Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History was published, was at the end of a notable career as a critic of art, history, culture, and politics and cannot be counted on to muster his peak powers in the service of his civic subject. It does not help, perhaps, that Hughes has only been a visitor to Rome and not a resident, a shortfall which he acknowledges at the onset but never quite overcomes. Far be it for me to question a revered scholar’s understanding of an extremely complex world capital when I could never claim even a sliver of his expertise on the matter, but at many times Rome seems to be missing the irresistible force of scholarly prowess combined with penetrating, fabulously-written insight that defined Hughes’ remarkable account of Australia’s system of penal transportation in The Fatal Shore.

But there’s much good to Rome, and ought to be noted. As Beard notes in her Guardian review, it’s difficult to fault Hughes’ portraits of the heavy hitters of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque in the city. Summoned from the dusty annals of history and the fading works that they produced are the driven, powerhouse anatomical genius of Michelangelo, the sublimly gifted social butterfly Raphael, the quarrelsome but uncompromising champion of the Counter-Reformation Caravaggio, the impossibly talented giant of public design Bernini, his innovative but difficult architectural rival Borromini, and the mighty, ambitious Popes Sixtus IV, Julius II, and Clement VII, who between commissioned so many enduring works of public religious art.

Hughes also conjures the freewheeling 18th-century heyday of privileged tourism known as the Grand Tour in all of its heady admixture of highfalutin, demonstrative refinement and grubby, greedy exploitation. Even the late sections covering Italy under Mussolini and his Fascists and his neoliberal contemporary heir Silvio Berlusconi are trenchant and magnificently detailed, not to mention almost needlessly fair (Mussolini is frequently lumped in historically with his fellow Axis leader Adolf Hitler but his Fascist regime boasted both better art and public works patronage and less restrictions on minority ethnic rights in relation to Nazi Germany, at least until its closing years).

Even the opening pages on republican and imperial Rome, despite their evident errors, are rich with details from this profoundly alien past world whose cultural and political output was romanticized by Britain’s elite for so long. Magnificent villas and palaces rise alongside squalid tenement housing and brigand-ridden nocturnal streets, incredible engineering and architectural feats coexist with sickening self-indulgence and violent power seizures. Public baths, rowing ships, garum factories, imperial wars, and the upheaval of the rise of Christianity drift from the mists of time. Can you trust the truth of every word of it? Not really, if Beard is right, but even if this is the case, then what a compelling fantasy Hughes makes of this history.

Hughes has a talent for deploying fantastic (and maybe not strictly historical) anecdotes that illustrate the character of a time, a place, an important historical personage. He could detail the psychopathic excesses of Emperor Caligula (and does, at least a little), but he instead relates a bizarre (and possibly apocryphal) story of the Emperor ordering his legions to collect seashells as war booty as opposed to invading the British Isles. For all of his moderation as concerns the nature of Mussolini’s regime, he deposits a depth charge of terror in the form of the Fascist torture practice of forcing prisoners to eat a live toad (“The poor toad!” he mentions an Aussie actress reacting upon hearing the tale). And his riveting narrative of the moving of a towering stone obelisk during the Early Renaissance is both tense and dense with examples of superior engineering acumen.

But these anecdotes add up to more of a piecemeal history than a full, rounded view of what Rome means in historical or cultural terms over the centuries. This approach goes especially off the rails in his section on medieval Rome, which is rushed and betrays not merely a lack of expertise in the city of the period but a lack of interest in obtaining that expertise. This section becomes more of a history of the Catholic Church than a panorama of a thousand years of civic history. Hughes expends his efforts on discussing the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in France, a vital and under-recognized episode in the Church’s highly ambiguous legacy but not really, ultimately, a Roman story at all. He also drops in the compelling story of 14th-century popular leader and self-proclaimed Roman tribune Cola di Rienzo without drawing out the social and political forces of the period that contributed to his rise. It’s as if Hughes can’t wait to hurry on to the safe ground of the Renaissance, where his blows of insight land more truly.

It’s undeniable that Robert Hughes gave himself too much to do with Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal Memoir. His panorama of Roman history never rises back up to the level of his initial metaphor: the menacing bronze statue of Giordano Bruno glowering down at the lively flower market in Campo de’ Fiori, the piazza in which he was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Church in 1600. This contrast of beauty and horror, historical portent and quotidian delights, religious rigidity and belated guilt, is somehow understood by Hughes as quintessentially Roman. Does the rest of his book on Rome, at once overlong and not nearly lengthy enough to do the city’s ages proper justice, fully illustrate this quintessential character, whatever one might choose to call it? It’s hard to say that it does. But what a ride nonetheless.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”: The Dream and the Pain of History

September 10, 2015 4 comments

Between the World and Me, the new book by The Atlantic‘s silver-penned editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a fast-detonating truth bomb in the hands of its readers. At once a deeply personal memoir, an incandescent sociopolitical essay, a tight-packed literary pamphlet, and a species of impassioned secular sermon on the African-American perspective in a supposedly “post-racial” society that is inherently anything but, Between the World and Me ought not to be as essential as it is. But a civil society such as that of the United States of America that continues to target black bodies for destruction and plunder, to echo Coates’ bluntly effective terminology, requires such a searing critique.

Coates’ first book, The Beautiful Struggle, was more of a proper memoir, albeit one that sought to make sense of the fearful but joyous everyday reality of growing into one’s black adult self in America, and Between the World and Me is also firmly grounded in personal experiences, in the galvanizing force of memory. Coates is a highly prolific writer, producing more traditional but still deeply powerful long-form journalism for the prestigious East Coast magazine that employs him (such as his mighty piece “The Case for Reparations” from last summer) while also blogging and tweeting about current events and politics but also classic hip-hop, basketball, video games, learning the French language, American and world history, and whatever else strikes his fancy. His many outlets for public writing seem to be admirably treated as blackboards or notebooks to scrawl down and refine his ideas, to focus and sharpen his prose for when he needs it the most.

Between the World and Me is packed with import, composed with a sort of careful forcefulness. Sentences land heavy body blows; a paragraph can leave a reader winded, staggering. Organized as a letter to his teenaged son (which Coates admitted in a recent Daily Show interview was a “literary conceit”), the book’s observations are cohered by this “advice to a son” organizational principle, like Polonius advising Laertes without the comic foolishness. It repeats key terms like mantras or leitmotifs, linking the way that Coates understands American society, politics and history with his own experiences and those of other African-Americabetweentheworldandmens around him and in the national news.

Coates writes of the concept of White America as a mass self-justifying fantasy, “the Dream” of “people who think they are white” (the phrase of James Baldwin, whose book-length essay The Fire Next Time is a strong influence on Between the World and Me). The Dream’s foundations for 400 years and into the present day are erected on the broken and economically exploited bodies of African-Americans and the internalized fear that the ever-present threat of that disembodiment creates in America’s seemingly perpetual underclass. Not merely slavery but the attacks on Reconstruction, the systemic exclusion of Jim Crow, segregation, housing policy, ghettos, and the prison system, the deadly terrorism of lynching and the KKK, and myriad other smaller and larger effects of the dehumanizing practices that have shaped the African-American experience in the United States are noted and discussed with clarity and wisdom.

Coates comprehends the “race problem” itself as a construction that intrinsically supports the Dream. “Race” is a construct and a malleable one at that; its boundaries shift, the compartments that it arranges around certain minorities and distinct groups frequently moved depending on the needs of the society. It is anything but immutable, is not even skin deep. And yet these racial distinctions have formed a tribal identity for African-Americans that Coates recognizes and values as well, and that he comes to understand as having much greater breadth and variety than is generally acknowledged upon attending Howard University, a historically black university that he refers to as “The Mecca”.

But as important and familiar as that identity is, as much beauty and truth as it imbues, Coates recognizes it as being the product of the eternal fear of imminent potential destruction for African-Americans. He wishes his son to understand and value the quotidian struggle with that inheritance of fear, but also to experience the wider world, such as Coates and his family glimpses in Paris (while also recognizing that this city’s romantic allure is built on a Dream as well). There is ever a note of sadness to Coates’ memories, to his words to his son about his own journey, the acknowledgement of progress but also of the tragedy of retained fear and of wasted days, months, years in its thrall.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique element of Between the World and Me is the atheist Coates’ rejection of the multi-generational narrative of progress and hope imparted by the African-American church. Without the belief in eternal life and an arc of history that bends towards justice, Coates is left feeling cold by the non-violent resistance of the beknighted Civil Rights movement and the continued exhortations for contemporary black activism to emulate it. “Allow us to break your bodies without resisting,” the gatekeepers of the Dream say with this insistence, “and perhaps those of us who believe themselves to be white might one day feel enough bad about it to put a stop to it.” To an atheist, as Coates says, the body is the soul. No expectation of becoming a shimmering ghost that gazes down beneficently from a cloud as ghettos improve for their black residents or the prisons empty and close or police are punished for shooting unarmed black men until they see no advantage in continuing to do so or, indeed, as a man with a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother becomes President is worth the destruction of the only vessel that will ever carry one’s consciousness. Fairy tales and myths are the tools of the Dream, and Coates rejects their easy comfort with admirable forcefulness and intellectual nuance.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at one point in Between the World and Me that he is no cynic, though that precise criticism has been levelled at him often in the reception of the book. In the New York Times opinion pages, David Brooks gave the book backhanded aesthetic praise while castigating Coates for displaying insufficient reverence for the Dream, that myth of inborn American benevolence and righteousness that confers an aura of blamelessness in any situation. The Dream is the only recourse for the Brookses of America, however, since the waking reality (what Brooks unreflectively calls Coates’ “excessive realism”) is one of fear and plunder for African-Americans, even in a supposedly tolerant modern nation.

Americans may wish – vaguely, amorphously, and perhaps disingenuously – for an end to this state of affairs, if they even allow themselves to acknowledge it. But Coates provides no simple political, social, or even emotional road map to the “healing” or “reconciliation” of the deep wounds that racism has inflicted on blacks and whites alike (the former with the wounds inflicted upon them, the latter with the inflicting of their wounds on their collective conscience). Indeed, healing is a lie, another aspect of the Dream, no less pernicious for its soft empathetic contours. Feeling the pain of history and experiencing the struggle with that feeling is the only path to progress between white and black in America, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lightning-strike of a book makes it even harder to contemplate taking any other.

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”: Puritan America, Then and Now

August 29, 2015 Leave a comment

It is frequently stated that the United States of America is a Puritan country. Intended as a facile sort of penetrating insight, this epithet connects contemporary American stuffed-shirt morality to the semi-legendary English founders of the first permanent colonies in the northeast of the continental U.S. In this formulation, the Puritans who settled in the Massachusetts Bay area in the early 1600s are popular understood as severe, humourless, stuffed-shirt Bible-thumpers who enforced a strict conformity on the basis of Scripture that has survived, in altered form, in the modern society of the nation.

This impression has been accomplished with a literary assist from the common curriculum assignment novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was descended from a judge in Puritan America’s defining atrocity (or one of them), the Salem witch trials (to say nothing of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a transparent historical allegory for McCarthyist “witch hunts”). In the Puritans, those who employ this simplified expression see the precursors of today’s Bible Belt’s Evangelical Christian fundamentalists, a prediction of the pearl-clutching shock with which evocations of sex are greeted in the public sphere, and/or a historical explanation for any rigidity to change or difference displayed anywhere in the 50 states at any given time.

It wouldn’t be exactly correct to dismiss this received opinion of the New England Puritans as an entirely inaccurate myth. Indeed, it is more than half-right, encapsulating much more of the nature of these important figures in American history than many popular myths come close to doing (Andrew Jackson, right this way, throw your coat up on the bed). But as Sarah Vowell shows in The Wordy Shipmates, the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are not only ironclad religious authoritarians. They are certainly that, but they are also dedicated scholars, pragmatic administrators, unselfish communitarians, rebellious seekers and irrepressible mavericks, and cruel, racist war criminals.

Drawing on archival sources as well as her own particular experiences with the remnants of Puritan society and culture to fill in the full, rounded human nature of the Puritans, Vowell locates many more aspects of the American character than mere unbending, stringent moral rigidity (which is intermingled with clandestine permissiveness in American society anyway). In the published sermons of Puritan preachers prior to and during their Transatlantic crossing, Vowell traces the kernels of communitarian values and destructive exceptionalism alike.

She spends some fruitful time exploring the numinous application of the Biblical phrase “a city upon a hill” by the Colony’s first, dominant governor John Winthrop to the forthcoming settlement in his lay sermon A Model of Christian Charity. “The city on the hill” was engraved firmly upon the modern American psyche by President Ronald Reagan, who utilized the image frequently throughout his political career to legitimize the arrogant strain of American exceptionalism that his presidency rendered hopelessly ascendant. Vowell, who grew into her peculiarly patriotic progressivism in the Reagan years, valiantly battles for many pages against Reagan’s claim to Winthrop’s Biblical invocation, pointing to rising homelessness, economic disparity, Defense overspending, and the deeply distasteful Iran-Contra scandal as compelling reasons to doubt Reagan’s rosy optimism as well as to emphasize his excising of the sense of highly-exposed sense of responsibility in face of a judgmental deity inherent to Winthrop’s use of the phrase in his sermon.

But more tangible elements of Puritan New England occupy Vowell’s attention and strike both author and, consequently, reader as being more vital to the development American social and civic identity. The tremendous bookishness of the Puritans, as referenced in the title, is one of the defining features of their society as well of their faith, especially as contrasted to early 17th Century Catholicism. This highly Protestant engagement with the text of the Bible and with analyzing and understanding the word of God for one’s self marked the Massachusetts Puritans as scholars and intellectuals in a way that current American conservative Christianity, with its reverence for patriarchal power and seemingly endless enemies list, has lost. Indeed, Vowell laments the anti-knowledge philistinism of contemporary America in general. For all of the Puritans’ God-bothering ignorance and ranks-closing prejudice, they possessed an admirable intellectual openness.

Less admirable, to Vowell’s eyes and likely our own, were other Puritan characteristics. The conflicts between Winthrop’s Bay Colony power base and the uncompromising ideas of unorthodox citizens like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson demonstrate an iron will towards communal conformity that continues to make differences in identity and adjustments in social standards painful and difficult in modern America. Both splitters were banished from the Colony for their divergent conceptions of how to live under God’s law (and founded new settlements in Rhode Island that allowed for religious dissent in a way that Winthrop’s regime would not), belying the claimed preference for co-existence and compromise by the Colony’s Puritans (as opposed to the Plymouth Pilgrims, who pointedly agitated for separation from a Church of England that they found to be irredeemably tainted by Papism, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans balanced their disapproval of the Church with a stated desire to remain within it and achieve desired reforms).

Perhaps Vowell’s most vigorous effort of connecting threads of American history in The Wordy Shipmates involves her detailing of the Pequot War, one of the initial salvos in European colonists’ long, heinous, and largely successful genocidal cleansing of the continent’s indigenous inhabitants (following on the heels of cataclysmic epidemics of disease that denuded Amerindian populations after first contact). A brutal skirmish in alliance with other local tribes, the Pequot War was marked by one terrible massacre and other atrocities besides while either killing, capturing, or dispersing the Pequots almost entirely. There was nothing noble or even justifiable about the Pequot War, and Vowell sees in its prosecution the template for future Indian wars and mass displacement that remains a largely unacknowledged but horribly important factor in U.S. nation-building.

Vowell, who claims Cherokee ancestry, has a bee in her bonnet on this subject (and good for her; America needs more bees of this sort in their collective bonnet), which also provided the engine for her outrage at American imperialism in Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes. The Wordy Shipmates is not only about the first stirrings of Amerindian genocide, but the Pequot War is the harshest manifestation of the social characteristics of Puritan New England that Vowell skillfully (and even entertainingly) narrates in the book. Puritan society is very unlike modern American society in many ways, but it resembles it in many ways as well. It’s worth appreciating Sarah Vowell’s work on the subject for establishing distinctions in regards to those resemblances.

Television Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC; 2015)

For a longtime devotee and serial recommender of Susannah Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the prospect of any screen adaptation of this most absorbing and beguiling tale of magic and manners in the Early 19th Century England sparks excitement and trepidation in nearly equal measure. Excitement at witnessing the book given visual form, with sumptuous sets and costumes, handsome cinematography and computer effects, and idiosyncratic performances by observant actors. Trepidation at the inevitable pitfalls of adaptation, and the helpless petit morts of disappointments when some cherished narrative element, characterization, or mental image from the pages does not transfer with the proper alacrity to the screen.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has taken a long path from book to screen before landing at long last at the BBC, whose attractive if streamlined seven-part miniseries based on the novel and directed by Toby Haynes recently completed its broadcast run in the UK (BBC America is still in the midst of airing the weekly episodes in the U.S., while Space has the Canadian broadcast rights). New Line Cinema snapped up the movie rights and planned a big-screen version as an expansion of its post-Lord of the Rings profile as a fantasy genre powerhouse, but the project never proceeded beyond the screenwriting phase as other British fantasy literature adaptations like The Golden Compass flopped and New Line Cinema went belly-up and was swallowed by Warner Brothers. The BBC stepped into the breach in 2012 and produced the final adaptation, which at seven hours surely covers more of Clarke’s thick tome with a keener British eye, albeit with a lesser budget and weaker onscreen talent than Hollywood could probably have mustered.

strangeandnorrellHaynes’ television version has widescreen ambitions, but translates Clarke’s narrative surprising closely, at least to begin with (greater dramatic liberties creep in as the climax approaches, some of them of a dubious and cliched nature). That narrative concerns the titular gentlemen, who semi-reluctantly restore the public practice of magic in England in the early 1800s after it has lain dormant since the waning days of the Middle Ages. Clarke imagines a compelling but merely sketched alternate history of England in which magic and faeries play an important part. At the dark heart of this history is a legendary (and more than a little sinister) figure known as the Raven King, a magic-practicing monarch who ruled Northern England from Newcastle for 400 years before vanishing, perhaps into death, perhaps into another world. The heritage of his rule is still felt in the gothic moors of the northern shires, an ever-haunting mist of gloomy superstition set against the rational, imperial, and mercantile modern state of London and the South.

The historical-fantasy events related take place between 1806 and 1817, as England struggles against Napoleon on the continent. The wealthy reclusive landowner and scholar Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is coaxed out of seclusion by a Yorkshire society of “theoretical magicians”; “theoretical” because they’ve read about magic in books (though not many good ones, as Norrell has ravenously bought them all up) but never performed acts of magic themselves. Norrell claims to be able to do magic, and is convinced by Society members John Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr. Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) to hazard a demonstration. Norrell obliges, bringing the carven stone statues inside the cathedral church of York Minster to sudden, jabbering life for the amazed members of the Society (this first instance of the magical is milked for atmospherics in the dim grandeur of the Minster). This public return of the practice of magic to England brings Norrell to overnight prominence, although it ends the operations of the York Society, part of the exacting Norrell’s desire to control the practice of and discourse around magic in the country as completely as possible.

Norrell arrives to great fanfare in London with the expressed intent of restoring English magic to a more respectable and modern place in society, in contrast to the wild and dangerous magic of the Raven King, whose magical practices Norrell despises and finds unsuitable to the modern context. Accompanied by his grim, tarot-card-toting servant Childermass (the excellently sneering Enzo Cilenti), the bookish, peevish Norrell has trouble establishing himself and magic in London society at first, but scene gadflies Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) and Lascelles (John Heffernan) soon usher him into the proper circles. He gains the attention and the trust of the government when he effects the miraculous resurrection of Lady Pole (Alice Englert), the fiancee of minister Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West) who has tragically died shortly before their wedding. Unfortunately, in order to raise her from the dead and gain the influence and notice for his magic that he so craves, Norrell must call upon forces of magic that have been long kept out of the human world, and for good reason.

Meanwhile, an amiable but aimless country gentleman named Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) quite accidentally (or perhaps not so) happens upon a travelling street magician named Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who sells him some magic spells which Strange then performs with the élan of an unschooled natural. Strange and his newlywed wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley) are soon ensconced in London, where Strange becomes the pupil of Norrell in a partnership that will prove extremely tumultuous as well as decisive for the course of magic in England. The two magicians of very different temperments and outlooks will become embroiled in the struggle against Napoleon, against each other, and against a powerful foe from the land of Faerie with thistle-down hair and a certain sartorial strangeandnorrell1flair (Marc Warren), who has eyes for Lady Pole, for Sir Walter’s African butler Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare), and for Arabella, and will not let two English magicians stand in his way.

Even such a detailed plot summary barely scratches the surface of what makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell such a rare delight on the page. Clarke combines a Dickensian flair for eccentric character (especially with figures like the sycophantic fop Drawlight, played with impeccable smarm by Franklin, who adds the canny detail of Frenchifying the pronunciation of his magician patron’s name: “Nor-relle!”) with a mordant, dry wit in her narrative voice, an impeccable and endlessly clever pastiche of Jane Austen’s recognizable free indirect speech. If it sounds a bit old-fashioned in literary terms, it both is and isn’t. Clarke’s book is a tremendously bookish read, full of nested narratives and illustrative anecdotes from magical history that are often self-reflexive if not necessarily post-modern. Many of these are contained in her wonderful footnotes, which sometimes take precedence over the main text itself but generally act as tangents from the main story that are at the same time illuminating and obscuring, distracting and deepening (Strange, for example, is introduced in a footnote before he ever appears in the narrative proper).

Her use of magic is also a marvel. Unlike the wand-pointing and Latin spell-declaiming of the Harry Potter universe to which Clarke’s world has been (unproductively) compared to, magic in Strange & Norrell is unsettling and unpredictable, an uneasy and sometimes imperceptible warping of the rhythms of the quotidian world. It manifests as an invisible smoke, in the reflections of mirrors and the language of birds, emerging out of dusty libraries and busy city squares like a secret door being opened for only a fraction of a second. Even the ampersand in the title seems like an unfamiliar rune, a mystery separating the two magicians. Magic is a digression from the “real” world, a match for her self-aware literary voice in telling her story.

It should be fairly clear from the outset that no visual medium, with its stark representational requirements, can approximate such purely literary devices, such purposely, artfully vague and suggestive descriptions. Images, dialogue, and tics of actors’ performances must perform similar functions, or broad, brief strokes of them at least, and that is what Haynes’ Strange & Norrell does. It frequently does a very impressive job of this. This miniseries is handsomely shot and miraculous lit. The period-recreation sets bristle with details both immersive and symbolically suggestive. The special effects are well-rendered and effectively used if noticeably restrained in comparison to blockbuster films, although the appearance of misty rain ships off the French coast or galloping horses conjured from sand are couched as showy spectacle rather than with Clarke’s nuanced diminishment of magic’s effectiveness (Strange’s spells in particular have a habit of getting out of his control and becoming a mischievous nuisance in the book).

“Your cravat is beautifully starched, but I shall still have to kill you horribly, I’m afraid.”

Both Carvel and Marsan are dedicated and mostly beyond reproach in their embodiment of the titular magicians. Marsan’s peevish, self-serious Norrell glowers in his library with his old-fashioned wig (it almost deserves its own cast credit, especially after its suffering in the finale), tugged between Childermass’s underworld knowledge of magic doings and the increasingly manipulative influence of Lascelles but occasionally capable of a wide, infectious impish grin at an unexpected display of magic by Strange. He’s a putative dictator of magic in the nation, naturally suspicious of rivals and even of his talented pupil for reasons that are never quite elucidated in Peter Harness’s script but that aren’t hard to fathom given Marsan’s characterization of the inherently fearful little man. Carvel, with his uneven hair and careless grin, represents a telling contrast. His eccentricity (and incipient madness) aligns him with the haphazard, hidden world of magic more closely than does Norrell’s prim, cranky bookishness, and makes the Raven King a much more fascinating figure to him. The younger Strange carries much more of the action than does Norrell, and whether bantering with Lord Wellington or the mad King George III or defending himself on the battlefield of Waterloo with desperate magic, Carvel seems ever in his element.

The supporting cast, however, is considerable less so, suffering from the relative compression of the material and flattened characterization as well as from casting less prominent talents for a more marginal television production. Riley’s Arabella is not such a clever, enticing partner for Strange as on the page, and their separation and his quest to get her back is rendered in much more conventional tragic romance terms (they also sleep in the same bed, which plays into an important plot point but is wholly unbelievable for anyone with any knowledge of the upper-class marriage conventions of the period). Cilenti and Kaye are pretty great together (and are at the centre of the closest thing to a sequel stinger that the series can manage), as are Warren and Bakare, although the latter lacks in general as Stephen.

Something rather substantial is missing from the gentleman with thistle-down hair as Harness writes him and as Warren plays him, however. On screen, Warren plays the troublesome faerie as consistently imperious and sinister, every inch the obvious villain at every moment. He becomes serious at times in the book, but when he does Clarke describes him “putting on grave and important looks quite unlike his usual expression”. Warren is always putting on grave and important looks, and his mercuriousness, his changeability, his fundamental faerie-ness, is entirely lost. It’s an important mistake, and as a result the character not only feels wrong to the book reader but distinctly single-note to the neophyte to the material.

While the television miniseries context makes for a less truncated narrative, its more limited set of resources dials back the ambition of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in what will surely be its definitive screen version. A Hollywood blockbuster take on the material, even one extended over an unlikely two or three films, could very well make many of the same debatable adaptation choices and character missteps as were made here. It may well have butchered other elements as well, while not getting nearly as much right as this Haynes version does. Despite my misgivings there is plenty of good here; this is not at all an unreasonable or unrecognizable screen version of Clarke’s book, and is in fact a frequently entertaining one made with real craft and verve and respect for the source (which one hopes will gain new readers via the show, as it is by far the superior work). Still, there remains a small but unavoidable sense of mild despondency when considering that this is the only Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell screen version that lovers of the book will get. As good as it mostly is, there is often something missing that diminishes the magic.