Monday, September 16, 2013

Of Courtesans, Trophy Wives, and Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine"

In our time, it is acceptable for highly successful men to ditch a dowdy and child-worn wife and trade her for a new super-model spouse.  But what are the values inherent in such relationships?  What's left when it all blows up?  

Tennessee Williams explored this question in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire.  His answer:  what's left is more fakery and phoniness than is pretty to look at.  Here is a quick synopsis,  just so we're on the same page:  
Blanche DuBois is a fading, though still attractive, Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue and culture only thinly mask her alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Her poise is an illusion she presents to shield others (but most of all, herself) from her reality, and is an attempt to make herself still attractive to new male suitors. Blanche arrives at the apartment of her sister Stella Kowalski, ... on Elysian Fields Avenue in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans; one of the streetcars that she takes to get there is named "Desire." The steamy, urban ambiance of Stella's home is a shock to Blanche's nerves. Stella, who fears the reaction of her husband Stanley, welcomes Blanche with some trepidation. As Blanche explains that their ancestral Southern plantation, Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, has been "lost" ...  her veneer of self-possession begins to slip drastically. Blanche tells Stella that her supervisor allowed her to take time off from her job as an English teacher because of her upset nerves, while in reality she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. .... A brief marriage marred by the discovery that her husband, Allan Grey, was having a homosexual affair, and his subsequent suicide, has led Blanche to withdraw into a world in which fantasies and illusions blend seamlessly with reality.
In contrast to the self-effacing and deferential Stella and the pretentious refinement of Blanche, Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a force of nature: primal, rough-hewn, brutish, and sensual. He dominates Stella in every way and is physically and emotionally abusive.  [Yet] Stella tolerates his primal behavior as this is part of what attracted her in the first place; their love and relationship are heavily based on powerful – even animal-like – sexual chemistry, something that Blanche finds impossible to understand.
Marlan Brando made  a hell of a Stanley Kowalsky.  

In Blue Jasmine, the Woody Allen homage to Streetcar, Bobby Cannavale is no Marlon Brando.  Allen's "Chili" is but a poor Elvis caricature.   Sally Hawkins is a delightful Ginger,  the South of Mission grocery clerk sister to Jaenette Francis (Jasmine).  She's as self-assured and solid as Jasmine is weak and without a center.  Ginger is alright, despite her unpromising men.  But the center of gravity of Blue Jasmine is squarely on the Blanche DuBois character.  Cate Blanchett puts in a tour de force as Jasmine, falling apart because her center will not hold.  

The other main source for Jasmine is the Bernie Madoff story.  Surely Woody Allen must have run into  Ruth Maddoff in New York.   But, whereas in real life, Ruth Madoff is rumored to have been knee deep in the books of the Madoff Ponzi Scheme empire,  a powerful and savy co-conspirator with her husband, Allen's Jasmine character is all trophy wife courtesan.  

Is that misogynistic?  I don't know.  It's not a new phenomenon.  

There is a new book out by Julie Kavanah, The Girl Who Loved Camellias:  The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis, about a famous 19th century Parisian courtesan.  Anka Muhlstein describes these women thus, in her review in the New York Review of Books:
A courtesan never burdened herself with any career other than the one she pursued flat on her back ....  These temptresses have existed throughout history but they took on a special status in post-revolutionary France.  That's when they were ushered into French literature, by writers ranging from Balzac to Proust.  
The licentiousness that marked the high society of the eighteenth century did not survive the French Revolution.  Virtue, piety, and decorum reigned in respectable houses and men were bored.  The wives--married too young, deeply ignorant, and regrettably, as noted by Georges Sand, raised to be saintly--had no way to keep those men at home....  The only salons where you could laugh freely, tell a risque joke, or start an affair---all while enjoying an excellent repast in the company of lovely women--were those presided over by one of these women.  
 And she includes this delicious image:  
Noone reported that Marie Duplessis uttered a witticism.  Housaye insisted that she talked nothing but nonsense, but so charmingly that no one wished to stop listening.  
We guys can relate.  Some of these courtesans, like some trophy wives today, became fabulously wealthy.  But life being what it is, that kind of fame and fortune is harder to maintain than a Ponzi scheme.

In 1980, relative newly-weds, Bobbi and I attended the opening of Paul Verhoeven's Spetters at the Pike Place Cinema in Seattle.  Paul Verhoeven was there and the film was followed by a question and answer session.  That film also features a striving vixen, searching her fortune by successively hitching her wagon to  the most successful of three friends .... the constellation and power relations change throughout the film.   Just like  Blue Jasmine, Spetters drew some strong negative reactions.  One viewer, a woman, reacted to the mercenary portrait of marriage in the film.  Verhoeven's response rose to the bait of her anger:  "All marriages are an economic relationship at heart," he said.

That's not wrong, it strikes me.  Man or woman, whether courtesan, corporate CEO, shop girl, grease monkey, Stanley Kowalsky, Jasmine, or Ginger, ultimately we've got to stand on our own two feet.  In the end we die alone.  In the meantime we've got to roll with the punches and make our own center, hold it together, and try to have a good time, no matter what.   If, in the process, we can create loving and long lasting and supportive relationships...well, so much the better.

In the end, Versace, fancy houses, cars, and first class flights notwithstanding, we want to live like Ginger, not like Jasmine.  And if you can have both .... well, hell, then you've really got something.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Eugen Weber on "The Ups and Downs of Honor"

Eugen Weber was a professor of modern European history at UCLA.  This past week, Brad DeLong, directed us to Weber's utterly fascinating essay published in The American Scholar back in 1999, on The Ups and Downs of Honor.  

The essay makes fascinating background reading for Syria, protestations of Obama's "fecklessness", or the daily evidence of shortage, in general, of integrity and honor in our Congress.  It's a fascinating look at the honor of thieves, honor among the high, the low, the mythic, the real:
The oldest poem in our Western tradition opens with a quarrel about honor. The Greeks, who have spent several years besieging Troy, take time off to sack a neighboring city. From the plunder, a girl, the daughter of the priest of Apollo, has been allocated to the Greek commander, Agamemnon, king of kings. When the girl's father comes to plead for her return, Agamemnon refuses the rich ransom he offers. So Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks, and Agamemnon is forced to hand her over. To save face, he confiscates another captive maiden who has been bestowed upon Achilles, the greatest fighter among the Greeks. Achilles has a big ego and a quick temper, but he cannot resist, because Agamemnon can call on more men than he can. So he does the next best thing: he drops out of the siege and goes to sulk, while the rest of the Greeks get walloped.

Many have read the book or seen the movie, but few have fathomed that the function of this tragedy, as of many others, is to glorify and heroicize ugly motives and ugly deeds. If we look at it afresh, without the respect due to a classic, we will discover that the Iliad, chapter 1, presents two gang-leading thugs, Achilles and Agamemnon, facing each other down, trading threats and insults over loot and women, and that the whole poem turns on plunder and pride and the sport of killing.

Similar sentiments move another heroic figure, Roland--a reckless young fool who accepts combat at odds of ten to one; who refuses to call for help when only reinforcements can prevent annihilation; who sacrifices his men, his friends, and himself; and who endangers the interests of his lord and country in order to satisfy an ideal that even his best friend does not accept. Yet Roland's values were widely admired for centuries. It was of Roland that the minstrel sang to the troops of William the Conqueror before the Battle of Hastings, and it was to Roland that the Crusaders looked for inspiration, as did Pizarro's men in Peru as late as the early sixteenth century. 
And, after picking on my namesake, he picks on my profession:  
The legal profession, for example, which had been much concerned with the nobility of its calling, found other fish to fry. In 1908, the American Bar Association's Canons of Professional Ethics had bound lawyers to use only "fair and honorable means." In 1969, the ABA junked the Canons because it was "designed for an earlier era" and full of "quaint expressions of the past." One of the quaint expressions that it dropped was "honor." Perhaps the ABA had assimilated the spirit of Emerson's sally: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
When it comes to drawing conclusions, Weber does not shy away.  There is nothing like the long view of a historian to sober us up about what's at stake ....
The period during which a few Western societies managed to persuade themselves that their security was assured as long as law and order were guaranteed by that idealized monopolist of violence--the state--has proved brief. What is coming back is the original, violent, practical model that a lot of reasonable, law-abiding people had come to consider as obsolete as chastity. These days, over growing patches of what had slowly, painfully, precariously become a civilized world, older and more primitive conditions are returning. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold"; the authority of what we call authorities is questioned or ignored; bodies and institutions that are supposed to secure security contribute to insecurity--either by failing to act or, in countries where corruption is prevalent, by effectively erasing the line between criminals and police.
That is where, that is when, the codes and the mentality of old-fashioned honor re-emerge to dictate principles of conduct. Retaliation looks more effective than reprieve. Experience teaches that if you give way, more people push you. The logic of violence is crude but simple: violent reaction against transgression deters others who might follow suit. And there's little evidence that litigation affords a better chance of justice or satisfaction than forceful direct action does.
We are back in the realm of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Roland, a realm of small communities and face-to-face relations in hostile surroundings, where men prey and plunder as much for prestige as for material gain, where bands of young warriors like those that Tacitus described in ancient Germania--gangs held together by interest in booty, hope of fame, and fear of shame--gather around a leader selected or self-selected for enterprise and ferocity. Material conditions, appropriate ideological codes, and shortage of alternatives explained it then and explain it now.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Yeats wrote this after the First World War and during the Irish civil war, but his words apply to other darkling ages when other barbarian gangs destabilized decaying civilizations; and they apply as well to the centuries of convalescence from chaos, when expedients were being turned into rules once more to create the norms that we were brought up to think of as normal. The rules are seeping out again, aggression is reasserting itself as the better part of valor, and a new kind of honor that looks disturbingly like the old kind of honor is seeping back in.
Read the whole thing, it's well worth the time.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Watching a Beating on the Street, Uncomfortably

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post has read the transcript of the four hour Senate Foreign Relations Hearing, resulting in a 10-7 approval of the White House request for authorization to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.  He was struck by the hollowness and desperation of the arguments made for a limited strike to "send a message" to Assad.  What's going on? 

As usual, Klein engages in some clear thinking:  
The problem is that achieving ... [the real goal of stopping Assad from killing his people with any kind of weapons right now] requires a military intervention of a size and length that America is not willing to countenance.  So they're increasingly trying to justify the military intervention that Americans might countenance [limited symbolic strike] by using the arguments for the military interventions they won't consider.  
Four main arguments were trotted out at the hearing in support of a strike authorization, he reports.

1.  Deter future dictators from using chemical weapons on anyone.  This is weak.  Doing something pretty ineffectual today won't deter anyone from anything in 2022.

2.  Prevent use of chemical weapons on American troops or civilians.  Weaker still.  We don't need to do something ineffectual in Syria to have credibility on that issue.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, we have all the credibility we need to deter this type of attack on U.S. troops or civilians.   Bombing some assets in Syria that, by the very terms of the authorization resolution being considered won't be sufficient to actually bring about change will do nothing to prevent future attacks on American soil.  In fact, our bombing of yet another country in this volatile world may well increase the risk of terrorist activity on U.S. soil. 

3.  Humanitarian intervention.  No it's not.  Bombing Syrians with cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, or from high up in the air, will harm that country and many people in it.  It may accelerate and fuel the civil war going on;  it will not reduce the refugees; it will not reduce the bloodshed, it will not save any Syrians. 

4.  Stop the killing.  That's what we want. That's the reason we're outraged--Assad has killed maybe 100,000 of his people, and forced 1.5 million from the country as refugees, and displaced another 6 million within the country.  The 1,000 dead in a chemical weapons attack, whose specific source is open to question, is just the straw that broke the back of our patience.  That's why it does not really matter who is responsible.  However, not Congress, not the American people, not Obama have a taste to really do what needs to be done to stop the killing.  To stop the killing and set that country on a course for a brighter future would require a hundred thousand troops and a long term involvement.   

Bottom line, it's not about deterrence, it's not about red lines on chemical weapons, it's not about credibility, or actually helping Syrians .... it's about we are shocked at the violence and we want to just "do something."  It's like watching a group of hooligans beating an old man on the street.  We feel we have to do something.... but we don't want to actually get in the middle of the fight to stop it.  

It doesn't feel good to watch this beating on the street.  There is no police to call.  No United Nations.  That beating won't stop unless we jump in the middle of it.  But we don't want to jump in the middle of it;  we don't want to get bloody.  It's not our fight.  And, truth be told, all the characters are kind of unsavory.  So we watch in the shadows, under the bridge, uncomfortably.  Maybe we'll throw a rock to scare the hooligans off;  maybe we'll slash a tire on their car.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Working Poor and 24 Loaves of Bread: or has the Industrial Revolution Wrought a Miracle?

Tintoretto, the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes (1545-1550)
When Jesus heard of it [the beheading of John the Baptist], he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.   
And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.  And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.   
But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.  And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.  He said, Bring them hither to me.  And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.  And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.  And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
Matthew 14:13-21.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the multitudes lived on the edge.  Absent drought, famine, pestilence, or war, unskilled workers earned just a little more than what was needed for daily sustenance.  The industrial revolution, and the century and a half since, has freed the multitude from the cycle of population growth and famine.  How do we measure the progress?

Brad DeLong has reposted a discussion examining the explosive growth of economic productivity that happened in 1870.  He identifies 1870 as the hinge of the Industrial Revolution.   John Stuart Mills and Karl Marx thought about this in terms of how many calories of bread an unskilled laborer could earn at different times.  We've escaped the Malthusian trap that spawned such thoughts, but what does this thought experiment look like in 2013?  How many surplus loaves of bread does a minimum wage worker earn in a day?

Unless I'm completely missing something, the count is 24, and Brad's calorie count, below, is spectacularly off.

Here's Brad:
To put it another way: In 1870 the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would have bought him (not her: women were paid less) about 5,000 calories worth of bread--5,000 wheat calories, about 2½ times what you need to live (if you are willing to have your teeth fall out and your nutritionist glower at you). In 1800 the daily wages would have bought him about 3,500 calories, and in 1600 2,500 calories. Karl Marx in 1850 was dumbfounded at the pace of the economic transition he saw around him. That was the transition that carried wages from 3500 calories per day-equivalent in 1800 to 5000 in 1870. Continue that for another two seventy-year periods, and we would today be at 10,000 calories per unskilled worker in the North Atlantic today per day. 
Today the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would buy him or her 2,400,000 wheat calories. 
Not 10,000.  2,400,000. 
That is the most important fact to grasp about the world economy of 1870. The economy then belonged, even for the richest countries, much more to its past of the Middle Ages than to its future of--well, of you reading this. Compared to the pace of economic growth since 1870 and even more so since 1950, all other centuries--even the first-half of the nineteenth century that so impressed Karl Marx--were all but standing still. 
That is why there is a very good case that it is 1870 that is the most important historical axis on which the wheel of economic modernity, modern economic growth, the modern economy--whatever you choose to call it--turns.
But I think Brad's got that 2.4 million number wrong.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July 2013, the price of whole wheat bread is $2.06/lb. [There are 453.6 grams in a pound]  A 38 gram slice of Oroweat seven grain bread contains 100 calories; a pound of this bread contains 1,192 calories.

So how many loaves (or wheat calories) does the federal minimum wage stuck at  $7.25/hr allow you to buy. Assuming 8 hours of work, a minimum wage worker earns $58 per day.  Assuming no deductions, except sales tax on the bread, this would buy approximately 25 one pound loafs of bread ..... or 30,205 calories.

Not 2,400,000.  30,205.

If it's true that in 1870 an unskilled worker would earn enough to purchase 5,000 wheat calories, or ~five loafs of bread (and I understand we are taking John Stuart Mills's word for it here), then the progress of a minimum wage worker in 2013 earning 24 surplus loaves of bread per day does not seem so spectacular.  The unskilled worker in 1870, after he ate one loaf to survive, had four left over to trade for shelter, and clothing,  a few lumps of coal, and some milk.  Today, a minimum wage worker--and in 2011 there were 3.8 million of them, or 5.2% of all hourly wage workers--has 24 loaves left over to trade for shelter, clothing, gasoline, car repairs, public transport, phone, computer, and a movie on Saturday night.

If we're thinking in terms of just surviving day-to-day until we run out of bread, then 20 additional surplus loaves is progress.  If we're thinking of 24 loaves of bread in terms of paying for shelter, clothing, phone, transport, television, radio, internet, books, movies, medical care, and children, then that is less than what Jesus managed with his five loaves in the desert.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Good Life, Picnic Baskets and Participation

On San Francisco Bay they are about to race for the America's Cup in those amazing AC-72's.  The  wing masts are ten stories tall.  The boats are fragile and when the wind blows 20 knots they won't race.  In a moderate breeze the twin hulls levitate out of the water and they fly around the course at 43 knots, balanced on slender  foil and rudder wing.  The sailors wear a helmet, body armor, breathing apparatus, electronic headcount system, and an underwater position locator.  They complete the 10 nautical mile course in 25 minutes.  They have killed five seals this summer.  Picnic baskets are not allowed.

Meanwhile, at the Museum of the Legion of Honor (June 1 - October 13)  there is an exhibit,  "Impressionists on the Water," that depicts a more peaceful and participatory relationship with the water, worlds removed from the gladiatorial battle being waged by moguls of industry on the Bay.
[There are] more than 80 remarkable paintings and works on paper by Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro and Post-Impressionists such as Maurice Denis and Paul Signac—artists whose breathtaking artistry reflects their own deep understanding of pleasure boating and competition. ...
The scenes are intimate and calming.  
[E]ngagement with boating as both pastime and artistic subject is at the heart of the exhibition. In the countryside west of Paris new patterns of life, including the idea of middle-class leisure, reflected the social and economic energies of an emerging modern world. Artistic innovations such as painting out of doors developed to capture the spirit and quick pace of recreational activities. The Impressionists’ brushwork suggests both the atmospheric effects and the sensations of movement that contribute to the invigorating experience of boating.
Invigorating, yes .... but they don't mean hydrofoiling at 40 knots invigorating.   One of the stars of the show, Renoir's "Oarsmen at Chatou" (1879),  is set in the same town as "The Boating Party" (1880-1881), and evidently features some of Renoir's same friends. The dandy in white jacket (probably Gustave Caillebot) and a finely dressed lady (Aline Charigot who became Renoir's wife) are standing at the river's edge, perhaps preparing to to step into the rowing skiff helpfully being steadied by a friend standing in the water, although Caillebot seems preoccupied with the races out on the water.  Two men are engaged in friendly competition; a sailboat drifts lazily down-stream in the distance.  No one's got white knuckles.  The picnic basket with a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese is surely hidden just behind the comfortable seat.

The museum displays examples of the skiff in the foreground here, as well as the racing sculls farther out on the river.  They are beautiful, and the varnish work is impeccable, but really ... the spirit of these pictures would have us take these boats out to the Oakland estuary with a picnic basket, not look at them in a museum.  

Caillabot, they tell us at the exhibit, was quite the sailor.   His "Regatta at Argenteuil" (1893) is one of my favorites in the show.   There is a regatta going on.  Caillabot, in a self-portrait, is at the helm finely balancing the tiller with one finger.  It seems he just rounded the leeward mark and is heading back up-wind.  Unlike the current version of the America's Cup, this race involves tactics, not just speed.  Caillabot is about to tack onto port tack and will have to contend with the boat coming down-wind still heading to the leeward mark;  fortunately that other boat is also on port tack and will have to give way as the windward boat.   Matters are complicated by the current.  You can tell Caillabot is sailing down-current by the way the moored boats are floating on their buoys.  Life is good if you're Gustav Caillabot. 

What do these Impressionist painters tell us about life?  They show us the beauty of the landscape, the pleasures to be had.  They encourage us to partake.  Break out that picnic basket, float on the Seine.  Don't break a sweat doing it.  What does the America's Cup race tell us?  We are plebs on the shoreline, watching a spectacle.   The richest men in the world are putting on a show, aren't they great!  But, hey, we've got the picnic basket.