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The Inversion of Minstrelsy

The politics of art—any art—can’t be understood by holding it to the standard of historical accuracy. What the work “represents” may not, and often is not, a real event from the past, even when it’s apparently set in a specific moment of the past.

So my fellow historians quoted in the Times this morning have completely missed the point of “Hamilton,” which is not merely to depict the founding of the United States but to revisit and repudiate the conventions of minstrelsy–the most popular theatrical form in America from the 1850s into the 1920s. Hamilton’s political achievements and philosophy are incidental to the larger and more important purpose of rearranging our assumptions, ideas, and attitudes about where race fits in the imagined community we call America.

On this stage, no white faces, no black masks, no stereotypically shiftless fools. No blackface, just black faces as founders, as the people who built this country from scratch. No more permission for white men to project their fears and their hopes of release from necessity, obligation, and restraint onto the bodies of black men, or rather onto a grotesque caricature of the black male—which was precisely what Sambo and Jumpin’ Jim Crow made possible at the minstrel show. Also what more recent remarks from an ex-president about urban predators still make possible.

Yes, singing and dancing, but no celebration of a narrative end to repression. Just the reverse.   These are serious, self-conscious men and women (characters, to be sure) who sacrifice themselves to the future that we, as citizens, have inherited.

When I read the Times story today, I immediately thought of Nathan Huggins’s brilliant gloss on Frantz Fanon in the last chapter of Harlem Renaissance (1971). Here’s a passage worth pondering when you think about what Lin-Manuel has attempted and accomplished with his magnificent opera—when you realize that he has made the minstrel show and all its distant echoes impossible, unbearable.  Having seen it, you can’t think about the relation between race and nation the way you did when you arrived, regardless of what you know about American history.

“White men put on black masks and became another self [in minstrelsy], one which was loose of limb, innocent of obligation to anything outside itself, indifferent to success . . . and thus a creature devoid of tension and deep anxiety. The verisimilitude of this persona to actual Negroes, who were around to be seen, was at best incidental. For the white man who put on the black mask modeled himself after a subjective black man—a black man of lust and passion and natural freedom (license) which white men carried within themselves and harbored with both fascination and dread. It was the self that white men might become—would become—except for the civilizing restraints of character and order that kept the tension real. How much better it was to have that other self in a mask, on stage, objectified as it were.” (pp. 253-54; cf. 268-69)

I think Ron Chernow’s portrait of Hamilton is close to absurd–the man was afraid of democracy and thought the republic could survive only by cementing the interests of the “moneyed men” (his locution) and the new state, by means of a national debt and the Bank of the US.  So I  think Lin-Manuel’s portrayal of Hamilton as an historical figure is also close to absurd.  That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Lin-Manuel has re-imagined this nation.  He’s let us in on the secret of its resilience: it lasts only as long as we know it’s always in need of a new birth of freedom.

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Loss is Memory

Mel programmed his tastes into my car radio, of course, so I’ve been listening to 107.5 as I drive everywhere I can think of, even if there’s no reason to. Yesterday the Jackson Five turned up—it’s that kind of station—and they got me thinking.

“Spare me of this cost/Give back what I lost.”

Remember that line?   “But we analysts have to deal with slaves who think they are masters.” (57) This is Jacques Lacan’s gloss on Hegel’s Phenomenology—he got it from Alexandre Kojeve—in Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, his most valuable work. (I have hereafter revised Anthony Wilden’s translation from the French.)

“Spare me of this cost/Give back what I lost.”

What is it I have lost? Remember that line?

“As the compulsion to repeat—all the more misconstrued by those who wish to divide the two terms from each other—has in view nothing less than the historicizing temporality of the experience of transference, so the death instinct essentially expresses the limit of the historical function of the subject.” (82)

That is Lacan’s reference to Heidegger’s Being and Time, which he cites in his next sentence.

Remember that line. These, too.

“We don’t need the outworn notion of primordial masochism to understand how the repetitive utterances by which subjectivity brings together mastery over its abandonment and the birth of the symbol.

“These are the acts of occultation which Freud, in a flash of genius, revealed to us so that we might recognize in them that the moment in which desire becomes human is also the moment in which the child is born into Language.” (83)

We want and use language, and we enter or engage the repetition compulsion we call storytelling, only insofar as we experience the mirage of loss—notice, the key words here are compulsion and mirage. “Psychoanalysis is properly what reveals both the one and the other to be simply mirages.” (56)

We deploy language—we use words—to restore what we have lost, but we can’t know what that is, not to begin with. Language is what lets us describe what never was.

“Spare me of this cost/Give back what I lost.”

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The Promise of American Life

This is a guest post from Jack Werner, aka Jack Ryan on Facebook.  He’s the “former student” I mentioned at an earlier post.  I walked him up to the subway.  This is what he remembers.  I can’t vouch for it, but I was there.



“That’s where Billie Holiday used to sing in the 1930s and where Malcolm X hung out in the 1960s, right there.” He points to the Lenox Lounge, a now dilapidated bar. “I wanted to make it my bar, you see, but…there was this lady, Cassandra, and…” he trails off, looking ahead at something with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face.

“This is the epicenter of, you know, Harlem,” he hesitates and looks around, “the black cultural center of the world. I used to teach about black nationalism. And I would say this is where the American promise was realized.”

“Re-realized, you mean?”

“No, realized.” He turns my body to face the street, his left hand resting on my shoulder and his right hand gesturing outward. “Imagine, you’re standing at the intersection of Lenox and 125th, it’s 1926 and you’re a young black intellectual, you look around and you can see the entire history of your people, which is the entire history of the country – peasants immigrating from the South, workers on their way to the stores and the factories, your fellow intellectuals, all of them, and they’re all just one generation removed from slavery – they’re all condensed, no, squeezed, into this moment, real time. Just imagine that.” He pauses and looks ahead. “I used to lecture about this shit, but I never came here. But then I moved here.”

We’re engulfed in a crowd as people struggle to walk around us. But we’re also embedded in imagination – his portrait of 1920s Harlem and my vision of Malcolm juxtaposed with his lectures at Rutgers. The memories keep mixing, past and present collide.

“What was it like?”

“Christ, I mean…” and his eyes wander again somewhere else, maybe history itself. He takes his hand off my shoulder. “You’ll have to cross for your subway back to Penn Station.”

“You sure you don’t want to come back to New Jersey? Drive that new car and hit the bars and all?”

We laugh and he shakes his head. “I’m sure.” He turns to start walking. “It was good to see you again.”

I turn, too, ready to walk away. But then I stop. I can’t leave yet. It can’t be over already. I turn back to where he was standing.

I see him disappearing in the brief distance that is Lenox Avenue. He’s gone, just like that.

I look downtown, at the Manhattan skyscrapers. You can see the Empire State Building from 125th and Lenox. Keep moving or die, I think.

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So you’re a liberal?

Yesterday I taught corporate liberalism in my 100-level survey course (yeah, I assigned the intro of Sklar’s Corporate Reconstruction, pp. 1-40).  I began by asking the students how they identified, liberal or conservative (or . . .). Three people in a class of 37 claimed to be liberals—roughly the same proportion of avowed feminists in this class—and five claimed to be conservatives. Everybody else was waiting, on rational grounds, to see where this discussion was going before they committed themselves.

I began with a rudimentary taxonomy of liberalism, partly because all the comrades on the Left and the Right think of it as something mildly disgusting and immediately disposable, like a rotting vegetable you stumble on when you open the wrong drawer of the refrigerator.

What is it, anyway? That is, what assumptions animate the liberal attitude in the US? Here’s how we worked it out in class, more or less.

(1) The supremacy of society over the state.

(2) Thus, the site of self-discovery and self-determination is society—not the state, not politics, not citizenship, as per the specifications of classical republican theory and practice, nor abstention and release from worldly affairs as per the specifications of Stoic philosophy and pre-Protestant Christian theology.

(3) Individuality is an achievement, not the result of ascription by ethnic origin, class position, official designation, or any other census measure.

(4) Individualism is a valuable constraint on collective definitions of genuine selfhood, regardless of their provenance.

(5) The collaboration of private and public sectors is essential to economic growth and political progress.

(6) Departures from the customary practices of the past are natural. Crisis becomes the norm. Precedent is to be honored but not necessarily obeyed.

(7) Liberty and equality aren’t the terms of an either/or choice, because liberty can’t be reduced to freedom of contract. The original intent of the founders was to make these commitments equivalent obligations, on the assumption that liberty, however defined, could not survive the demise of equality.

In these terms, the differences between liberals and conservatives don’t get incommensurable until we reach (7).

Why, then, are we so devoted to these divisions, and, more to the point when it comes to the comrades, why is “liberal” an epithet? OK, so I’m a liberal social democrat, a democratic socialist like old Bernie, and, not incidentally, like Eduard Bernstein, the original “revisionist.”  Does Weimar follow?


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I Am A Vampire

I am a vampire. There, I’ve said it. It’s not easy. To be honest, I’d rather be a werewolf. Those guys kill people for fun, not for a living. The full moon rises, they go out and chew through some morons who don’t know any better than to walk around at night without a bodyguard. Wander in the woods, in the dark, who does that anymore?

Me, I have to suck their blood because it’s fucking nutritional, you know what I mean? If I don’t bite them, I don’t live. The werewolf, OK, I suppose he’s committed, in his own way, but it’s once a month, and he doesn’t remember. I’m out there every day, selling. Every night, I mean, I don’t go out during the day, the sunlight and all, that would hurt. Really hurt, like incinerate me. That’s the life. I accept it.

The werewolf, look, he’s got a part-time job, but me, I’m full-time, if I don’t suck somebody’s blood every day, what happens? I’m losing weight, I get dizzy, I can’t concentrate. I start eating potato chips, and I already know they make me sick.

So why am I telling you this? I want to come clean. All right, not exactly clean. When I’m done talking, I will bite you, I can’t help it, it’s what I do, I’m actually scared of myself, but for now I want you to know how this system works, yeah, you’re about to die, but you’re going to know why, you see what I mean?

I suck your blood because I have none, there’s nothing moving in there, you have value to me because you got this thing I don’t, and it makes you valuable, or edible, I don’t know there’s any difference. If I consume you, I stay alive, you see what I mean? I get what I pay for, you pay for what you get. The price is life, yours or mine. If I don’t kill you, I’m dead. I have no choice in the matter.

Now, consider the werewolf. He doesn’t have to worry about any of this. He’s excitable, OK, murderous, at a certain time of the month, but mainly he’s just a regular guy, maybe more hairy than most. He doesn’t have to ask about the relation between the supply and demand of blood every day, like I do, he just goes out there once in a while, all angry, and spills as much as he can, and then he goes home, he looks at that full moon and he wonders what happened.

Not me. I know how this thing works. The werewolf isn’t the problem. I am. You fear us both, and now you’ve also developed a taste for zombies, a distraction from everything that lives. But now you’ll die because I’ll suck you dry.

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Faith, Hope, Love: Paul Was Wrong

I’ve been reading and thinking about Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, a shifty fellow with several avatars in later centuries—you know him, he’s the evangelist of early Christianity who, in a letter to the struggling little congregation in Corinth, told us that faith, hope, and love were the essentials of human being.

He’s also the literary critic who told us how to read the Gospels. His letters are the bulk of the so-called New Testament, and they appear immediately after those Gospels, explaining their bizarre genealogies—the figurative connections to the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament—in eloquent detail.

I’ve been reading and thinking about this man for two reasons. Long ago I insisted that my children go to church with me, even though I’m an atheist. I wanted them to know the Bible. I don’t know what they took from the experience, but I learned a lot in that Dutch Reformed Church, a distant echo of Calvin’s yearning.

More recently, I wrote a play that is set in Rome, in 399, when the church fathers Augustine and Jerome were contemporaries and acquaintances, and when the great historian of the Empire, Marcellinus Ammianus, an anti-Christian Stoic, knew both of them. The premise, my conceit, is that they meet at the home of Marcellinus.

I rewrote the play over the last week because I realized that Pelagius, the outspoken heretic denounced by both Augustine and Jerom–because he advocated “free will”–was a resident of Rome in this same formative decade, the 390s as we would call it.  Pelagius now makes an appearance, and he makes a splash in the play—reading him let me understand Augustine’s astonishing effect on his fellow Christians, and later writers, because Pelagius shows us how Augustine himself was lifting the dead weight of the past from the brains of the living.

Pelagius and Paul come together in my thoughts on this unbearable Sunday morning because the comical contretemps between Pope Francis and The Donald looks serious, worth contemplation, through those ancient eyes.

Donald Trump is a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” according to Pope Francis. I agree, but then who among us moderns is not? Who doesn’t want to be Promethean, neo-Pelagian?

At that moment, when I ask myself this question, I read Corinthians again, 1:13. Faith, hope, love, “but the greatest of these is love,” says Paul. Why? Another question I can’t answer, not when my heart is breaking, except by saying this . . .

Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, was wrong. In Hebrews 11, he wrote that faith is “the conviction of things unseen.” Love is like that, it requires untested and unverifiable belief in another person—it’s faith in a hereafter but it’s a promise to be realized on this earth, so it has a temporal limit.

Love and faith are based on the same groundwork, then, which is nothing. You heard me right.

Hope is different. It makes you an empiricist, someone who says, OK, but what about tomorrow, what are my chances? It makes you want to know, not just believe. It makes you ask, do these wonderful new ideas reside in and flow from the experience I share with my fellow human beings, or am I just making shit up because I can’t stand them?

Faith in God can turn you away from this world. So can love, as it encloses you in the wonderful insanities of intimacy. Hope will not turn you away—not if you have faith in the neighbors you’re supposed to love.

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Leon Wieseltier Has Lost It

Speaking of malevolent, arrogant men who have ruined many mornings, Leon Wieseltier needs to take a vacation from real life, or finally announce that he is God. I’ll vouch for him either way, dead or alive, because I don’t believe in God. He is more arrogant than I was at 25, and that’s saying a lot.

I here limit myself to his Atlantic review of A.O. Scott’s book, Better Living Through Criticism.  This review is the most pompous text I’ve read since I forced myself through Tacitus because Erich Auerbach urged me to.

Leon is the middlebrow equivalent of Antonin Scalia. I hope to meet him some day, and tell him this to his face. On that occasion, I want to say as well that I hope he will writhe in Hell with Tony—Scalia, not Scott—where they can exchange pronouncements about they way things are supposed to be.

Leon begins and ends with Rilke, who was notoriously useful, but also stupid, along with D. H. Lawrence, about the sources and consequences of art as such. They believed it was life-changing, a kind of Kantian imperative—“The essential function of art is moral,” Lawrence intoned, “not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation, but moral”—or it was pointless. They were wrong. So is Leon.

Scott’s book is a meditation on what it means to be a reader and a critic, of books or movies or whatever, at a moment in human history when everyone can be. What is the point, why do you get paid to do it if everybody on the planet does it? As I understand him, Scott claims that the critic is the person who completes the author’s argument, whether that is conveyed without obvious apparatus, as narrative—in a story, say, or a movie—or by the serious, rhetorical intent of the academic writer. The critic is the person who discovers and explains the surplus of meanings most of us won’t find in whatever we’re reading or watching or minding.

Scott also insists that this surplus can be found, and measured, almost anywhere you look. The task of the critic is to seek it out, not to assume that it’s produced only in certain highbrow precincts, where an inherited stamp of approval already lets you pretend that you know how to separate the good from the bad—the high from the low.

Leon lives in and for that separation, where elevation and elocution are the insignia of seriousness. Listen to him, speaking from somewhere on high, as if he’s a pretender to the throne of the snot we try to remember as a poet because most of what he said as a critic was foolish, or cruel, or stupid. That would be T. S. Eliot.

“When it comes to the question of what bearing the lower realities of American culture should have upon its higher ambitions, Scott regularly acquiesces in too much . . . The fight for the integrity of aesthetic experience is not over. Scott is not a fighter, he is man on the scene.”

Now parse these sentences with me. The “lower realities”? What can that mean? The ones Leon doesn’t care to observe or indulge, like, say, the Super Bowl, or hip-hop, or popular music in general, the conversation you might hear and the insight you might find on the street—the stuff of everyday existence, what he calls the commonplace? How can you separate yourself from this plane of existence if you intend to express or amplify the possibilities of life as such, as people actually live it?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had something to say about that plane of existence: “One of the cardinal objects in poetry consists of faithful adherence to such characters and incidents as will be found in every village and its vicinity.”

Leon disagrees. He wants us to know that those lowly characters and incidents neither intersect nor interfere with what he calls art and criticism. He wants us to know that he, at least, has been able to rise above this world, and to judge it from the Scalian heights afforded him by distance from New York City.

The “integrity of aesthetic experience”? Since when was there just one way into or out of any work of art? Doesn’t the experience of modernity, and modernist art, reside precisely in their incalculable echoes, how they multiply as they move us? When painters could sail away from the safe harbor of hushed religious ardor and begin to worship the most mundane objects—we call that still life—they freed us all from the comforting complacencies Leon thinks we still need.

Leon excels at removing himself from the fray, rising always to a God-like vision of the fallen world we inhabit. In the second paragraph of this execrable review, he uses “Perhaps” as his exit sign and his phony plea for the reader’s trust. Listen now. He’s praising Rilke and condemning Scott. He’s anointing himself a saint in the church that consigns itself to relevance in the next life, when the masses have better manners and reading skills.

“Perhaps there is nothing ridiculous, after all, about grandeur and consecration and transcendence and a single view of the world. Perhaps one should not return unchanged from a museum. Perhaps a decision does have to be made.”

Perhaps Leon is entirely ridiculous because he does not merely wade, he wallows in such idiocy. Perhaps Leon needs to shed the costume of grandeur and consecration and transcendence—he’s not the fucking Pope of Art, and neither is Rilke. Perhaps Leon should stop going to museums. “Perhaps a decision does have to be made”?

By whom, Leon? How did you evacuate these premises? This is the Wieseltierian procedure, you see. It reminds me of the much better critic James Wood, who speaks of indirect discourse in the 19th-century realist novel. But Wood speaks of fiction, how it works. Wieseltier absents himself as he accuses Scott of writing non-fiction that makes many decisions, not just one on behalf of “a single view of the world.”

Who exactly stands convicted, then, of “methodological shiftiness”? A. O. Scott, who is almost too honest about his intellectual origins and destinations—the guy who makes you uncomfortable by telling you he’s unsure of where this ship is headed, or Leon Wieseltier, who stands there telling you the Titanic will never sink, even as it floods?

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