Sunday, April 13, 2008


The first of April has acquired some significance for me, in part because it's the date dedicated to my favorite Tarot card, The Fool -- which is also the name of the rock group on whose album cover Pynchon's Tyrone Slothrop is supposedly visible in the background -- and the date has meaning in Gravity's Rainbow because of the fact that in 1945 Easter and April Fool's Day were the same day. Apart from that, there's the use I make of the date in Between Days, which may or may not be tied to those other associations I just mentioned.

April Fool's this year I went to hear Terry Eagleton of Oxford give the first of four lectures at Yale. It seemed an appropriate date because Eagleton seemed only too eager to play the fool, jibing at an opponent he designated as Ditchens -- an amalgamation of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for their recent publications in favor of atheism -- so as to establish that liberals who associate Christianity with conservatism are wrong. For Eagleton, Christianity is the faith of the downtrodden, of the have-nots, those he was willing to call -- from the point of view of capitalist success stories -- losers. Christ, of course, being the ultimate Holy Fool, Eagleton's point was perhaps worth expressing, given the day, all the more so when Eagleton's purpose was itself so quixotic. Invoking Nietzsche (the figure I associate most readily with The Fool card), Eagleton said that it was indeed foolish to attempt to save Christianity from Christendom, from the misappropriation of the religion by those who have agendas rather less than Christlike. But that left him not much to bring by way of insight. No matter, it was enough for him, apparently, to spoof what he termed the liberal intelligentsia as a way of yet again establishing his more radical-than-thou credentials. It was fitting then to see him, like Christ denied thrice, pause three times in his Thursday lecture, expecting laughs that didn't come. Not quite fool enough, our Terry. I didn't get to hear his lectures the subsequent week, but I'd already had reason enough to expect that it would be the flayed body of Marx that would rise again on the third day.

After the second lecture, I went to see a screening of Charles Ferguson's documentary on the Iraq invasion, No End in Sight (2007). There one was treated to footage of a pack of fools of the first magnitude: President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, L. Paul Bremer, whose collective misreading of the situation they would create by invading Iraq, and whose decisions on how to conduct the aftermath of their "victory" in 2003, went beyond mere arrogance and criminal indifference and shameful mismanagement to become a kind of psychotic episode in American history, worse than any previous misstep, such as Vietnam, because of the degree to which it was masterminded in so slipshod a manner and ramrodded down the public's throat with such cynical aplomb. Footage of Rumsfeld glibly bantering at press conference after press conference -- "I don't do quagmires" -- would be funny if it weren't so galling. Ferguson's film relies upon thirtysome informants, most of whom were part of the initial attempt to restore order after the period of rampant looting had already taken its toll, but who were mostly summarily dismissed under the baleful malfeasance of Bremer, at whose door the film lays the major gaffes in the form of decisions that reflect an attempt to clean house of any Saddamites, but which in the process simply laid the groundwork for an insurgency against the U.S. Valuable for its hindsight appraisal of everything that went wrong, the film plays a bit too heavily on the headshaking and handwringing of those whose intentions seemed to be good (not ideologically against the war on principle, they were eager to do the job that, they believed, American presence in the region should accomplish: stability and human resources). The story is dramatic, frustrating, with a kind of black humor tone occasionally creeping in. As with any complete breakdown of bureaucracy (New Orleans and Katrina comes to mind), the statements of those who were on hand while it was going down always sound surreal: parties to a grand loss of rational procedure and the leaders' monomaniac insistence on "their" people, they can only act as witness to a grand folly. The effect is to make the viewer a kind of righteous fool, suddenly puffed up with anger at the series of debacles that have been U.S. policy in the 60 plus years since WWII.

In terms of my own claim to "fool" status, I undertook a task of rearranging single-handedly my writing, reading and music room, which is to say that I had to transplant hundreds of books, CDs, LPs, and a rather cumbersome desk. The task continues as I find that for some reason my DSL connection has been affected by its brief disconnection. The height of feeling foolish in this regard occurs when one tries to get an answer from an actual knowledgeable human when dealing with the mysterious entity known as AT&T and its various robots and recordings and frustratingly uninformative websites. I find myself repeating to myself Wilson's mantra from the conclusion of 1984 like any good fool should, sanguine at the degree to which he is happy to live in a brave new world depleted of responsibility and answerability, but relentless in its pursuit of "connectivity."

A few more fools: at the WHC on Friday night (the 11th) I watched for the first time a Charlie Chaplin film on the big screen. It was Monsieur Verdoux (1947), an uncharacteristic role for Chaplin, as a sympathetic Bluebeard figure (laid-off bank clerk) with multiple wives who he kills off or tries to kill off one by one so as to support his lifestyle with his true wife and son. The film runs on too long and has too many inconsequential scenes, but what never flags is the charisma of Chaplin himself. He's one of those people who seems to exist to be on film, and his acting isn't overly histrionic (except for a few broad comic turns), nor is it the motivated style of today. It's a kind of relentless exploration of mannerism for the sake of effect. Which is to say that it's a kind of acting that communicates to the audience that it knows it's being watched. The year the film opened, Woody Allen turned twelve. I have no doubt he saw it then. It explains a lot.

Finally, I got around to watching Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965) on DVD. There are plenty of amusing throwaway lines, but the film seems to lie somewhere between A bout de souffle (1959) and Weekend (1967) in its haphazard run-through of genres that never quite jell. The fact that they aren't meant to doesn't do all that much to keep it moving, unlike the far more nimble and caustically satiric Weekend. Pierrot has many of the usual Godard tropes -- brooding Belmondo with his eternal cigarette, fetching Karina (who occasionally makes the film a musical), car accidents that look like modern art, guns and guerillas and the Vietnam and Algerian wars, withdrawal from modern life in an idyllic setting on the Meditteranean, murky plot points involving gangsters, text on screen and voice over readings, references to other films -- La Dolce Vita (1960), in one comic moment -- and moments that seem to point to Bonnie and Clyde (1967) for which Godard was considered as a possible director, and self-referential moments toward cinema itself, but they too often drag rather than dance. But then, I never seem to enjoy Godard when I watch him at home. Foolish to try, I suppose.

No comments: