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HOW MUCH SHOULD WE LIKE GAME OF THRONES?

FORTUNES OF A BLOCKBUSTER

One could say that HBO’s big as Ben Hur Game of Thrones series is like the proverbial curate’s egg  “good in parts”. If so, approaching a seventh season touted to be something of a continuous nightmare, viewers may, like Clive James earlier on in the series, ask themselves why they are still watching.. The question is pertinent if like James you don’t relish the by now distinctive violence and aren’t especially interested in the (effectively soft porn) sex either.We may have a clue to the fandom and sometimes addiction Thrones engages from the fact devotees include politicos such as Barack Obama, David Cameron and Julia Gillard. I suspect they and audiences generally appreciate depictions of the unvarnished ruthlessness they increasingly sense politics is about. And as people love to hate a bad character, the series offers plenty of opportunities to do just that. The tradition of the Jacobean revenge drama has returned….with a vengeance.

THE GOOD

     (A picture of Dark Hedges, site of Princess Aryas’ escape. Incredibly I was told this is now N Ireland’s most visited natural site (bar presumably Giant’s Causeway) and certainly the tourist traffic and crowds are all apparent)

What’s good about GOT has always been obvious enough: the sheer spectacle (realized across Ireland and 32 locations from Morocco to Iceland), the twists of plot and the intrigues, the well choreographed battles etc. The production alone is enough to fascinate anyone, especially if like myself you have ever had anything to do with drama or scripts. When in Ireland recently and on a trip that included some of the series’ locations, I was told more people are involved in the production of GOT than the whole civil service of its Northern Ireland home. So I have enjoyed insights into that side of things having moreover watched the series in the best possible way. This is not on TV but via DVDs which include features about precisely the settings, the production, the actors, the script writers, meanings and symbolism viewers might otherwise miss – some expect the series and its books to become the subject of doctorates!

More certain is that there are always going to be less than academic debates about how the epic ought to wind up. The script writers who have already imposed some variations upon the first volumes have now got ahead of the rather displeased author (who supplied only a few clues as to his final intentions) and are preparing for the last and eighth series before the final volume of the epic has been written. One might guess that the stoical, romantic Jon Snow, bastard of House Stark, will discover his true origins and (the author’s original intention of marrying him to Arya being dropped) get to marry the long suffering, reformist Daenerys, mother of dragons and so bring peace to the seven incurably warring kingdoms of Westeros. This would fit with the epic’s at least intermittent sympathy for underdogs and women. The dragons belong, incidentally, to the more magical side of an epic fantasy more realistic than magical or “poetic” in any Arthurian style and located in a para-medieval world that is nonetheless pagan and has existed for millennia.

I don’t know if and how much Irish mythology may have influenced the author, but with or without its influence there are real affinities for a work like Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology in its sprawling nature and tendency to switch between the big picture and the small item. For that reason I should perhaps not have been so surprised as I was  to come across a copy of an Irish translation of GOT in a Dublin bookshop this June. Not that the author’s writing style notably recalls anything Irish and due to certain bittiness I never found reading  GOT that easy by bestseller or any other standards. I will not try to summarize the plot here, there are plenty of sites on the Net where you can find explanations and summaries including précis of each season and episode on Wikipedia but beginners might use Game of Thrones for Dummies at http://www.thedailybeast.com/game-of-thrones-for-dummies .

AND THE NOT SO GREAT

Ultimately however, and despite some satisfaction at how much GOT has put not just Ireland but even and especially its dourest corner (Northern Ireland) on the emtertainments map, I am not a devoted fan, more an interested observer. The cultural critic in me is fascinated by the fact the series is quite such an unprecedented hit and there are things I want to understand about this. How much is this blockbuster real art and a mirror of the times with a message or just overrated sensation and questionable entertainment? I will concentrate on what’s most controversial and sometimes just bad, because this is where the crux of the popularity question resides. It does seem that so often there’s a widespread liking of the series despite this or that and the doubt list grows.

When two of the lead actors of the series, John Dance and Kit Harington were introduced to the literary source for the series, the former thought the books “frightening” in their thickness (how could one read so much – the first volume alone is over 750 pp?!) and the latter felt the material “the weirdest”. Lengthy Tolstoy himself couldn’t outdo this bestseller – except for literary power. Game of Thrones and its sequels are not classic literature. They can be over-complicated with in places a constant addition of characters making up for strength of narrative – quite a lot of readers and viewers do give up on account of the intricacy, something compounded by even the author’s bizarre use of names. These are often either unnatural, forgettable tongue twisters like Viserys Targaryen or too similar for comfort. For example the leading character (as opposed to the hero) who is the dwarf Tyrion of house Lannister, must hold its own against among others, Tommen, Tywin and the whole house of Tyrell and the house of Tully, and Samwell Tarley and Brienne of Tarth and Theon Greyjoy, Tion Frey… and quite simply the author has a running love affair with the letter T.

Ordinary names, words and titles get altered around like Joffrey for Geoffrey, Jon for John, Eddard for Edward, Maester for Master or Meister, Olyvar for Olivia, while numbers of royal or noble characters like Sir Jamie have inexplicably to be written as Ser. There can also be mythically suggestive names like Cersei which is obviously Homer’s Circe though Cersei isn’t really like that anyway. This queen of intrigues is not a solitary witch but a very socialized woman. House Lannister into which Cersei is married is an echo of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses which is one source of author George R R Martin’s general mythology. Its chief inspiration is admitted to have been The Lord of the Rings, though perhaps even CS Lewis’s Narnia just a little to the extent winter and snow is a theme – the motto of the northerly House Stark is “winter is coming” .

LANGUAGE AND ACTING

The profusion of often weird names is almost minor against the strangeness of whole sections of the drama being interspersed with quite lengthy orations and conversations in an invented foreign tongue associated with especially the Dothraki people. Subtitles offer no translation. I take it the idea is inherited from certain late experiments of Tolkien with Elvish but it’s hardly either very entertaining or revealing- in fact it’s boring.

Odd too is the crazy patchwork of accents among the actors, posh, cockney, north country, Irish etc which I imagine belongs to an increasing pop culture, post modern will to include and diversify at all costs, even if it doesn’t fit natural expectation for the characters involved. But it also belongs to increasing emphasis on the visual over the auditory, a preference for strong presence over powerful delivery. (Sometimes there is near incomprehensible gabble or whisper instead of clear diction, though again that’s hardly unique nowadays to GOT). A few of the actors, especially among the younger ones, struck me as pretty weak. They delivered their lines in ways that trivialize or infantalize the sense, but then you later realize they were probably chosen because they are otherwise versatile – good acrobats, dancers, horse riders, swordsmen, good lookers or whatever.

Both book and film script are free in their use of the vernacular. Together they convinced me for once and for all that, paradoxically, vulgar talk and four letter words simply don’t automatically lend realism and power to drama at all, they may even reduce it to the atmosphere of a kid’s playground. ( I have just been re-reading that strangely violent Victorian classic Wuthering Heights, and find it loses no power but simply noting someone began to curse).

It’s true there are nowadays journalists to tell us that when things hotted up between Prince Charles and Princess Diana they might scream at one another fit for the gutter. But that’s still not necessarily representative for them or  royal history or anyone. More typical of royals and aristocrats across history has been their inability to unbend and leave the high style or etiquette. Before her execution Marie Antoinette even said “pardon” to her executioner when she tripped on his foot. Occasional verbal outbursts may therefore be the reality for individuals, but fiction and drama offer summary (caricature) only and thus authority figures can’t afford too much characterization via the merely exceptional or they become less credible…..And the atmosphere for actors and audience itself evidently risks infection. It’s almost but not quite amusing that in one of her DVD interviews Cersei actor Lena Headey employs variations of the F word so much, so often she sounds like a case of Tourette’s syndrome!

VIOLENCE

The fantasy is set in violent “medieval” times but some of the violence like that periodically directed upon a blind Arya by the Waif in the black and white house of the heads, is pointless and unexplained. Series Six included skull crushing, eye gouging and burning at the stake  (of a child) so one wonders how and why the seventh season is supposed to be more violent. With DVDs it has been easier to avoid some of the gorier and morbid violence by fast forwarding. Extended scenes of torture are quite simply unnecessary, especially in a show which is ultimately entertainment and fantasy of sorts. The torture and castration of Theon, dubious character though he might be, are objectionable and morbid as is also portrayal of his humiliation – he is to be gradually reduced to the animal or to a contemptible non entity called Reek. (Much later in the series he is deprogrammed back to reality and dignity or sorts and even helps save Princess Sansa from her marriage cum imprisonment. It is one of the oddities of the story and its often disjointed script’s lack of exposition and explanation that we see the pair jump off battlement walls in what seems as though in despairing suicide only to find them hail and free later).

I have only read book one, but the TV series seems true enough to Martin’s violent realism which is persistent, ugly and everywhere. If I open Volume One taking just a sentence or two at random I get (and this is mild) “Blood had gushed from the boy’s mouth as he collapsed, and more was seeping from the slit in his belly, pooling beneath his body. His palms were cut where he’d grabbed at the blade. She backed away slowly. Needle red in her hand….”

We learn the production company use a concoction with blueberries for vivid blood, and they make it all sound very funny, but one gets weary of blood streaming from mouths, eyes, stomachs, and sometimes necks. Series three ends with “The Red Wedding”, a spectacular and breathtaking orgy of bloodletting and decapitations at a wedding banquet. This is overkill (no pun) for what is only fantasy; but if you insist it’s life and  history, then life has enough of it for us to need to get away from it. However, if we aren’t being offered “realistic” blood for the inspection then we have to suffer such as Tyrion vomiting badly. I am not aware how the Belfast production unit composes the vomit.

SEX

I suspect that a recent confession by Dame Maggie Smith that she  probably couldn’t become an actress today because she would lack the now requisite courage to keep removing her clothes, is influenced by the nudity of GOT. There’s plenty of bare flesh and sex in Thrones but a major part of it has to do with Lord Baelish’s (Littlefinger’s) King’s Landing brothel. It is used in plots against enemies and to manipulate people. The dwarf Tyrion through perhaps inferiority complex, gets through many women but almost loses his heart to one whore.

I would agree with Clive James that the sex is basically Hollywoodized (one might say Playboyized) as it directs upon women. An emphasis on women might seem only natural and inevitable except for one vital point. If you are not directing porn as such (and in fact adult film actors were brought in for some of GOT’s sex scenes), stage and TV portrayals of nudity have long been justified provided they were essential to the plot and perhaps reflected also something more like honesty, vulnerability, spontaneity rather than glamour. Not only is some of GOT’s exposure of the glamorous whores and the lesbianism of some of them irrelevant to any plot, but a key element in the story, a princely homosexual intrigue with major consequences, a trigger to the religion/inquisition threat to House Lannister, is almost skated over by comparison. Its psychology is unexplored and its expression little shown. In short, if relevance and realism were any criterion, a series as frankly outré as GOT should have shown more male and less female nudity. That it hasn’t raises question of artistic integrity, sexual equality, etc. (Granted there was intended to be a nude scene for Kit Harington’s popular hetero Jon Snow character, but it didn’t proceed because the actor broke his ankle….life on set in GOT is dangerous!….but if it had gone ahead would it have been relevant save as gratification for Harington’s fans?).

The sole light relief from the controversial slave market erotica of the brothel and the suggestions of primitive sex among the Dothraki is in my opinion the hilarious first night of the jubilating, innocent Tommen with his queen. The young and exquisite Dean-Charles Chapman reports it was extremely demanding to perform. This can be believed and he deserves a medal. However you won’t see more of him clothed or unclothed as he has committed suicide out of the palace window rather than been killed off like his mad brother Joffrey and so many others.

AND THE MEANING IS?

Although a story doesn’t have to have a meaning, with the source text stretched over vastly more than War and Peace, and drawing in huge audiences across years, meaning could be expected. We may have to be satisfied with absorbing a general message or even just feeling about life rather than anything more philosophical or theological though sometimes the story veers in that direction. There is a whole plot line in the conflict of new and old religions, specifically one that holds to seven gods and the other to a new god of fire and light, the latter suggested to the author by Zoroastrianism in its struggle against polytheism. The supporters of the one god are fanatics or hypocrites. Their behaviour appears to look back at the medieval inquisition and thus fictionally seems like a dig by the agnostic author at Christianity especially as it’s followers of the old gods who seem a little more enlightened and generous. It does however get suggested, contemporary style, that perhaps all the religions are the same anyway.

Unless the series’ conclusion will indicate otherwise, I think all that we can derive by way of “message” is that war is always more or less futile, that human existence offers bleak prospects, that just survival is the main game and that amid it any meaning arises from purely random individual acts of wisdom, courage and generosity. The dwarf Tyrion exemplifies the wit to survive but, with a nod towards feminism, it’s if anything the women like Arya and Catelyn Stark and Daenerys who beyond using the mind own some generosity. Jon Snow and his sidekick Samwell Tarley are not a bad second for male consciousness. ….

OR THE MORAL AMID AMBIGUITY IS?

Apart from random acts of sense and kindness there is no real moral principle or centre to this story of “you win or you die” situations. Even the better characters are distinctly flawed. Catelyn Stark has been rotten to bastard Jon Snow though she has the grace eventually to admit it. Her principled husband Eddard, one of the more attractive characters of the saga launches the drama in a cruel way, insisting on the beheading execution of a soldier who having escaped an attack from the supernatural White Walkers and who thus provides useful news, is seen only as having deserted his post. The better characters don’t necessarily have more fortunate endings than the worst. Call this pagan amorality or postmodern moral ambiguity, but in the final analysis how really true to life is it if realism is any kind of aim?

The ultimately amoral quality of the saga is well represented by its treatment of one of its main characters, Ser Jamie, twin brother of Queen Cersei. From the first the pair are in incestuous relationship which they have justified from long standing Egyptian-style tradition. In a fantasy readers may allow them this alibi, but what they cannot or should not allow is that Jamie in covering for this affair throws Eddard’s son, young Bran who espies the pair from the castle window, to what is intended to be the child’s death though in fact it will be life as a cripple. Although this is criminal behaviour and pointless too (since would the child understand the situation or be believed if he reported it), Jamie is still allowed to emerge as something of a kindly, admirable hero. This marks an improbable character development which if it avoids ethical questions seems scarcely true to life either..

SOME CELESTIAL MARKERS

It might take astrology to explain the retiring author of GOT, his tastes and aims, and in fact I mention it because it does supply one or two clues to his influence and  and the virtual  cult he has launched. George RR Martin (born 20th Sept 1948 at 9.25 pm Bayonne, NJ) saw light of day with Sun in Virgo. He also had a Saturn hard on him at 0 degrees of that sign, a feature which belongs with the painstaking labour of his novels but also the over-intricate plot and the narrative theme of a celibacy in contrast less to romantic love than sexual chaos.

The actual concept of a “game of thrones” owes something to natal Venus conjunct Pluto in “royal” Leo, with the Venus then in positive aspect to Neptune (any fantasy and any film). Venus is the lesser benefic i.e. rather fortunate, and GOT was fortunate to get off the ground after its rather shaky pilot experience. The ultimate success and huge outreach of the series is helped by the expansive and fortunate aspect of fortunate Jupiter to Pluto (fame deserved or otherwise often shows this signature) and Pluto itself on a world point besides. Then too Uranus is found on another world point, at 0 Cancer, sign of Martin’s own nation, America. The grit and murk and the whole theme of war is however due to two factors, first a moon in bellicose Aries exaggerated in its effects through its easy trine to Jupiter and then Mars in the sign of Scorpio. The latter also has something to do with the raw sex.

I am struck by what I feel is the significance for the whole GOT phenomenon of the odd, disruptive if sometimes brilliant Uranus positioned extremely on a world point in Cancer. This is the sign of America, home, family and standard domestic values and pragmatism rather than philosophy. Notice GOT is suitably a production of HBO (i.e. Home Box Office)! In certain respects Martin’s fantasy challenges Uranian style, even smashes up, the happy home with its bleak, undomestic worldview which no philosophy supports unless the anti philosophy of a post Christian postmodernism. North Korea with its mad cult of a ruling family (not to say ruthless conduct) was born a few days away from Martin with Uranus in Cancer.

SYNCHRONICITY OR INFLUENCE?

   

With Uranus on a world point the author can with exceptional ease do as art and artists often can, namely anticipate, mirror and/or influence the times. It’s well known that beheading and hanging are frequent in GOT. The series was launched in 2011 (under Aries, sign of war and of the head!) prior to the major development of ISIS so notorious for brutality, vengeance and beheadings. Isis was founded in 2004 but only became strongly active when America withdrew from Iraq in 2011. So here life could be said to follow art… if art didn’t influence it a little too. We can’t know if the organization’s younger western recruits and the likes of Britain’s Jihadi John, active in 2014, would have been encouraged in a lust for heads by the images and action of GOT.

Also during the age of GOT, in 1916 Britain’s ever controversial Channel 4 initiated what critics have called the worst show on TV, namely the dating game Naked Attraction. Individuals select a date from among persons behind glass screens whose faces are blocked out but who are otherwise naked. What is obviously controversial about the show is not the nudity per se, such nowadays can crop up at least briefly in other programmes or on the streets as in events like The World Naked Bike Ride. What’s controversial is the spirit of the thing, the show’s affinity, however sanitized and polite  for slave market and brothel style objectification. Boundaries are broken when bodies and body parts are assessed for attraction like so many items in a shop window. If (cable) TV hadn’t pioneered in erotics via GOT, one wonders if this kind of show would have reached a national broadcaster and the mainstream. The same could be said about rape. If there wasn’t rape in GOT, would it have got itself against protest into the popular Poldark series? (And we know enough about the late author’s attitudes to be certain he wouldn’t have wanted it in any adaptation – he objected to the BBC’s earliest version of Poldark, when the hero’s wife was portrayed as sluttish).

If we look back in time rather than forwards it is at least ironic and as they say “goes with the territory” that of all places in Ireland it is the region of Ulster should play host to (and by now be half colonized by) GOT. Ulster has been famous for violence  and not just in recent centuries but back into the mythic past, which as said may have influenced Martin where the hero of Ulster, Cuchulainn, plays hurley with severed heads. In some respects GOT carries shades of the Roman games but it may carry some of Ireland’s wilder, darker side too.

TOWARDS THE END AND BACK TO THE QUESTION

With all this in mind I return to my original question about the popular culture phenomenon that is GOT. How much should we like it? Given all the barriers to appreciation I have outlined, one can’t offer more than qualified praise. This raises questions about those whose admiration is uncritical. What is it they really value and enjoy? Can precisely the challenge to accepted standards and censorship and with it the charm of belonging to the avant-garde in-group who approves that be suspected? It so, that could be serious. The fact remains that until laws and cultural values imposed greater sensitivity, executions and many forms of punishment were spectator sports. People enjoyed viewing death and torture in the public square or in the Roman amphitheatres. Too many probably still would – even today there apologists for the cruelties of the bullfight as “culture”. Arguments to the effect film and drama somehow sublimate and keep vicious desires within limits are dubious. Rape, torture, and violence generally can always be conveyed by shouts and screams off stage. By contrast images can sow seeds and foster obsessions. And as said, who knows if Jihadi John and his Beatles band or the insufferable Sally Jones weren’t encouraged as children of the West by modern entertainment of the GOT variety?

If you find elements of GOT plain distasteful, why keep watching? There are interest groups and persons from Christians to the Turkish army, from feminists to PETA who have their objections and even acting in the show can leave people with second thoughts (Jack Gleeson who fulfilled a childhood ambition to perform in a blockbuster by playing King Joffrey, is now debating whether he wants to act any more – he’s reverted to philosophy and theology studies at uni!). So the why watch question is meaningful. In my own case the answer (excuse?) is the very human one that I like to finish what I’ve begun and having travelled so far I wish to see what more of Ireland gets onto film, know how the saga ends and have a still clearer picture of what the bizarre phenomenon of the books and its series means, my writer’s purpose in the first place..

If it ends with the dragons as virtual saviours, since symbols and archetypes may be obscure but cannot lie, I might be forced to conclude the whole enerprise was about as bordering devilish as some imagine it to be (with Lucifer in direct aspect to the author’s Venus and Mars, his sex and violence themes, that can’t be entirely ruled out!).  The dragon is a variant of the serpent and in apocalyptic vision is a form of the devil. It is interesting just how many books and films of recent vintage have promoted images of dragons and serpents as friendly, helpful, harmless or unreal really. (Though I haven’t read it and can’t say it belongs to what I have in mind, top of several  fiction lists of 2016 has been a novel, The Essex Serpent.

I suspect that in years to come GOT could be seen as an aspect of the kind of general collapse of values and self-deception memorably described in a recent non-fiction bestseller, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised however if once the series comes to an end amid arguments between author and adapters  about how it should end, it will die a natural death and be little remembered unless as a staging post in large and super-expensive TV production. (I could imagine a fate la bit like that of the once incredibly hyped and for its time costly and spectacular Taylor Burton Cleopatra film).  And we who took GOT seriously might then seem as silly as the curate who managed to find his egg good in parts. But time will tell.

 

 

 

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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in aesthetics, creativity

 

THINKING ABOUT DISNEY’S “GAY MOMENT”

CHANGING THE STYLES

When I was young I was never a great fan of Disney films. Donald Duck might be OK but cartoonish versions of classic fairy tales were mostly a turn off, too knockabout  and yankee doodle. Early taken to those fairy tale-like villages and palaces of Mitteleuropa, I always felt I knew, helped by some classic illustrations, just how those stories should be rendered to screen but weren’t.

From what I would gather from clips, Beauty and the Beast which premieres in America on March 17th, promises to be closer to what I always imagined should have been a Disney treatment of fantasy. But just at the moment it becomes in some respects more fantastic real and European it also becomes a little bit gay too, briefly perhaps and almost exclusively towards its end, but evidently enough so to upset a sizeable minority of American citizens and some members of the Russian establishment. The latter regard it as bordering on forbidden “gay propaganda” but the nation has settled for a 16 + rating so that children won’t be influenced.  The chief “moment” – about two seconds of two men dancing together – is nevertheless said to be so subtle it’s likely to go over children’s heads anyway.

I understand that no one is called gay or admits to be so the length of the film, but there are occasional vague hints LeFou, the companion of Gaston, could have something like a man crush on Gaston straight though the latter is. The film’s director does understand LeFou’s character to be gay but many may not. The sudden controversy over what seems not too much could owe something to the fact Beauty’s innovatory “moment” comes to the big screen in the wake of another recent but small screen “moment” in a more typically Disneyesque  cartoon series, Star vs the Force of Evil.  Amid a celebrating crowd, gay couples are briefly seen to kiss and again you might almost miss it. But what has now been labelled the show’s “unbiblical kiss”  has drawn thousands of signatures from the Million Moms group (though given how many men kiss and embrace in the bible, “unbiblical kiss” can itself sound a trifle queer in the original sense of odd). Some Christians are however now debating how best to tell their children why they can’t be allowed to see Beauty and the Beast. 

HOW FAIRIE ARE FAIRY TALES?

Disney’s ostensible aim in this instance is to be, as it has always aimed to be, “inclusive”, a buzz word and almost automatic policy in liberal circles today. Ironically however, one might well ask whether Disney, no matter how accidentally, has not finally arrived closer to the spirit of a lot of fairy tale material not just in setting and atmosphere but in being a bit alternative too.

I don’t seriously suggest that Grimm, Perrault etc were senders of closet gay/queer messages albeit, for what the information is worth, Jacob Grimm never married. Tales like Cinderella can be allowed their romantic/straight vision of things.  Even so, a case can be made that “fairy tales” are a bit of a medium of expression for those persons themselves often called “fairies”. I made this point over a decade ago as a minor thesis within my at the time highly original doctoral thesis on gay spiritualities subsequently published in 2004 as A Special Illumination. goo.gl/qAqukK

From Oscar Wilde to Peter Cashorali (Fairy Tales: Traditional Stories retold for Gay Men), gays are masters of the genre with its observation and often subversion of custom. A Grimm’s tale like The Boy Who Wanted to Know What Fear Was, hints that marriage happy ever after and heterosex might not be so desirable, but rather something to be frightened of. In The Tale of the Two Brothers, who is that man in the woods who wants to adopt and mentor (classic gay roles) the lost sons of the brothers ? Why is he alone in the woods?

Inclusive though it wishes to be, it seems that Disney was somewhat pressured by ideologues of LGBT to include further. It will be clear from various blog articles that I don’t terribly like the direction in which especially American LGBT policy has been going. It’s arriving at something like the bullying of conscience and legal penalization of Christians. There are some tiresomely narrow Christians but all said and done why should they bake cakes for gay weddings if they don’t believe they should and be dragged to court and possibly have their livelihood ruined if they don’t comply? Would Democrats reckon to be forced to employ Republicans in their staff on the grounds of “equality” and “inclusion”? Some inequality and exclusion is a regular even necessary part of life. There’s a point beyond which no gay or straight person should impose themselves on society…..

DEMOCRACY WITHOUT VIOLENCE

However… where the Disney film is concerned, I don’t have democratic sympathies elastic enough to be generous to conservative protest and would-be boycotts and censorships…If you believe in democratic rights and freedom of gays within society at all, and especially if your idealism would wish that same-sex orientated persons interact at some level beyond the merely ghettoed, hidden and/or pornographic, then you must allow them what Disney is allowing them: the right to be seen, mentioned or self-declared. Also to help get beyond America’s unusually rigid  traditional gendering which until quite recently has too often been of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane variety” in a way to hurt many people, not just gays.

if you can’t consent to  this you are somewhere between blinkered or hypocritical. You put yourself in the socially retro position akin to that of Russia where homosexuality is technically legal but so practically unmentionable that any amount of homophobic violence is turned a blind eye to. And let’s face it, American Christians have traditionally allowed the bullying of gays and almost anyone different as a matter of course, accepting it as perhaps merely inevitable and deserved.

That attitude belongs to a whole social history that needs repenting before the spiritual atmosphere can be cleared; but far from any such thing happening the intolerance/aggression connection continues. Ironically I even note that the same evangelist, Franklin Graham, who has commended a cinema that refuses to show Beauty and the Beast and would like a general boycott of the film, is friend to the same pastor Saaed Abedini who has recently been guilty of breaking a restraining order put on him for abuse of his spouse. Abedini is OK in Franklin’s house though the increasingly conservative evangelist  is on record as declaring gays “the enemy” whom one shouldn’t allow into one’s home.

Not to be free to be known for what you are only makes for dangerous repression in the person who is “other” and for mixed, confused signals within straight society like women who don’t know who they are dating and dealing with. And even if you still believe there can be no possible justification for “homosexuality” as you define it, it is still not helpful to the young to have its existence hidden from their eyes and arsenal of general knowledge. So why criticize Disney? Go and enjoy the film…

ALONE TOGETHER: THE FINALLY ADMITTED UNHAPPY GAY PHENOMENON

……With that said I could leave the matter except that I almost need to make a Part Two or Addendum to cover something else that has cropped up at this time. It  has its connection to what I’ve been saying through its challenge to the very idea of being able to enjoy anything gay associated.

The same evangelical Christian Post which has featured re the Disney scandal has given room, yet again, to the inflexibly conservative Michael Brown (for whom homosexuality is just a curable disease or “lifestyle”, not any authentic or inborn orientation), to draw attention to an admittedly  significant recent article by gay writer, Michael Hobbes. The feature is Together Alone: The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness and it actually made it into the liberal Huffington Post (goo.gl/Jq9wsQ).  In light of it Brown cites the notable negatives of gay existence, which doubtless he is not unpleased to stress at a time when it has been claimed that the level of social acceptance implied by legal acceptance of gay marriage has in a short time reduced the chronic gay youth suicide rate in relevant societies by 7% .

Hobbes’ article stresses how despite all the advances in gay freedoms, virtually nothing has changed or improved. It tells how gays, many of whom spend (waste) their lives partying and chasing drugs, have fewer close friends and meaningful social lives than straights, are often (perhaps due to insecurities) unpleasantly mean to one another, and health-wise suffer more from cardiovascular disease, cancer, incontinence, allergies, asthma, erectile dysfunction. And overall there are more deaths from suicide than AIDS. Not just in America but even in Europe and liberal Sweden, places where difference is easier to realize than group conformist America, the facts are still confronting.

One could argue Hobbes’ picture is American extreme – healthy and well-adjusted gays do actually exist, I’ve known them – but I also recognize a lot of truth here too. The picture, by any standards grim, is the kind that the liberal press and tolerant society don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge but help nothing by pretending doesn’t exist. Yet however accidentally, I believe the truth, along with the possibility of a real healing linked to a sense of meaning and purpose, is contained in Hobbes’ conclusion: “We keep waiting for the moment when we feel like we’re not different from other people. But the fact is, we are different. It’s about time we accept that and work with it.”

DELIVERANCE TO AND IN  DIFFERENCE

…..It is indeed high time and past it. Gays are different mentally, even somewhat constitutionally – much like the artists which quite a few notable gays have been. (Earlier eras might have called them constitutionally neurasthenic types). As a neighbour in London’s much artist inhabited Chelsea once asked me: ”Have you ever met a contented, well-adjusted artist?” Almost never and a reading in the biographies of most writers, poets, painters, actors and musicians across history including the religious ones, won’t alter the impression substantially. Such turmoil and often tragedy!  And an honest reading of even various biblical figures like he poetic David who valued the love of men above that of women and the troubled unmarried Jeremiah who lived with Baruch, bespeak sexual marginality and its complexes and I would make a strong case for Jeremiah’s psychology being fundamentally gay (See Three Gay Theological Poems and its Jeremiah’s Loincloth  goo.gl/dOHgGC). Be that as it may….expanded or marginal vision, marked creativity and its accompanying sensitivity all take their toll on the system and impose special responsibilities.

It might seem obvious that gays are different, yet plainly to quite a few it isn’t. The secular mind is as blinkered as the conservative religious one when it comes to the real meanings and uses of sexual orientation. Gays and their straight supporters delight in stressing “equality”, “inclusiveness” and a potential or actual “sameness” (Andrew Sullivan’s “virtually normal”) rather than essential difference needing special management. This year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras made “equality” it’s special theme. It’s all feel good largely irrelevant hooey but due to the American influence upon Gay Lib, LGBT agendas get framed in the light of those American values that long ago the himself Socialist and Liberal Bernard Shaw dismissed as untrue. People are not in many respects born equal and there never can and will be perfect equality. As to the right to the pursuit of happiness that too is a tricky one. Some of the world’s greatest achievements are born of a necessary suffering. Too much striving for happiness can itself create the very opposite as arguably some American lifestyles amply demonstrate.

I have been insisting on essential gay difference and the need to work with it for years. Despite obtaining a world first doctorate in gay spiritualities from any religion studies dept and this research being subsequently published as the mentioned A Special Illumination,  I have been largely dismissed and ignored for it to a degree I now scarcely bother to make the important point further. All the while I have been painfully aware that too many persons, including academic leaders from Michel Foucault to Marcella-Althaus Reid who noisily espoused the basically amoral queer theory that teaches “identity without essence” and which virtually turns life into one long bi or pan sexual experiment, just don’t help gays to justify or manage their existence. Some might even be said to be exploiters of difficulty who lead confused minds to hell in a hand basket rather like Timothy Leary preaching the drug culture to sixties youth.

“Homosexuality is wasted on gay people” is one of the more meaningful statements for today from queer theorist, David Halperin. I’d say it often is; and my position is close to that of Camille Paglia in regarding homosexuality as one of the more crucial, vital elements in cultures (especially the western since the Greeks) and even, for good and ill, within religion.  It is absolutely necessary to recognize and work with what homosexuality is and does in society and to be rid of the mere lies and superstition that it’s all and always bad, something to be feared, suppressed and even unmentioned.  Without yet seeing the film, the controversy around Beauty and the Beast sounds like a storm in an evangelical tea cup amid which it’s just possible that Disney is helping something.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2017 in creativity, gay, religion

 

ELIZABETH GILBERT’S MAGIC: RIGHT BUT MOSTLY WRONG

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FEELING AND BEING CREATIVE AT ALL COSTS

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest easy read bestseller is a strange offering and not quite what it seems. It starts out in true American positive thought style as an encouragement to creative self-expression or actualization, specifically it’s an invitation in the style of fame-avoiding poet Jack Gilbert (no relation)  to find our inner treasures and cultivate “curiosity over fear”. Fear doesn’t like the uncertain boundaries and outcomes of inspiration, so to oppose it is key.

With this the reader is launched upon a sort of everyone’s how-to guide to living creatively and achieving fulfilment citing especially the example of the self-isolating Jack and  a middle aged woman who returns to her youthful love of just skating. But soon the book is morphing into more by way of a guide to inspiration and creativity as exemplified by work and inspiration as it affects writers and artists and Gilbert herself. This is something one feels the book shouldn’t quite do insofar as the ever democratic author would deny that the artist and art is anybody or anything special unless for the sort of committed work involved. So little is what’s special or any big C creativity involved that Gilbert, who says she “cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art” (p.120), advises that if you feel like painting a penis on a wall, go ahead and do it (p 88).

Art’s essential normality will even become Gilbert’s pretext to berate writers less successful than herself as complainers or masochists with attitudes that poison the very wells of inspiration they seek to draw upon. Gilbert herself believes true inspiration has a lot to do with just pleasure or fun. While this will always be partly true (the artist needs both to take and convey some pleasure in their work to communicate well) such wild generalizations ignore even the science of recent years. This indicates that beyond any simple self-gratification, artists are differently wired from scientists and have more grey matter (literally not metaphorically) than the average person. It might be wise to allow that artists could have their own purpose and role in nature and life.

In harmony with its title, Gilbert’s pep talk book is also almost a theory of magic and so it is soon maintaining we are visited by ideas with independent consciousness like so many spirits. At one point Gilbert even admits, “I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me” (p. 96).  You need to entertain these sources of inspiration or one day they will just wander away from you and, as though offended, won’t return. Practically, the book revives and popularizes something like ancient theories of the daemon and Platonic ideas and archetypes.

In the course of Big Magic there is plenty of sensible advice for creative people like an insistence the artist usually doesn’t need much that passes for higher education today and pursuing which can leave a student with half a lifetime’s debt. The artist needs to live and learn from life except that modern life too often prevents this. Since there are a variety of helpful tips for artists plus Gilbert’s work ethic and history of stubborn persistence are exemplary in their way, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading the book. But they do need to do so critically and with caution. Amid interesting anecdotes and advice there’s much that is  misleading, even seriously so as regards what art is or needs to be and I’ll address especially that…..

GILBERT’S “BIG MAGIC” SURPRISE THAT’S NEITHER SURPRISE NOR SECRET

…. However,  let’s get what the author regards as her crucial magical notion of inspiration out of the way first. What Gilbert has learned is that, as in science which talks of a “multiple discovery” phenomenon, it is possible to find oneself pursuing the same project and even writing virtually the same novel as another writer and at the same time. Gilbert and Ann Pratchett did so on events in the Amazon region. This it seems is part of something larger and terribly occult that we ought to embrace though we can never hope to understand it.

As it happens, what Gilbert describes will not be any surprise to anyone aware of the principle of cycles in astrology. These oversee entire cultural trends and will produce the same styles and motifs that another generation may consider of no interest at all. Thought (and art) is indeed archetypally determined to a great extent. Revivals of interest in certain periods and trends are the marks of a return of a cycle from perhaps hundreds of years ago. This  phenomenon is and isn’t “magical” (you can read about it in detail in culture historian Richard Tarnas’ ground breaking study Cosmos and Psyche, 2006)) and the sub cycles of planetary transits then relate the larger cycles to the development of individuals giving artists their creative and fallow periods; so if Gilbert embraced some principles of astrology she would have clearer understanding in relation to the art and self-expression  that concern her. And then she wouldn’t think of what occurs across time as like “jokes” and tricks of a trickster universe but instead a more ordered programme or fate.

But even subject to the effects of cycles, people pursuing creativity are not necessarily influenced by active spirits or angels as Gilbert so radically has it. In extreme cases this may happen, or at least be thought to happen – we find it in William Blake who claimed to see angels on a regular basis and film director Ingmar Bergman who supposedly had  contact with spirits and demons. At the extreme end of the influence scale it can even be that a generation is inspired or misled by prophets possessed by whatever forces for good or evil. To that extent it is just possible that having opened herself up to everything from yogas to gurus and a fortune telling Bali medicine man, Gilbert herself has finished susceptible to the influence of actual spirits keen to impose on the collective at this time. At least some readers would regard Eat, Pray, Love less as a true guide to self-fulfiment than a siren call to promiscuous spiritual dabbling and unhelpful forms of romanticism. Since I don’t want to get into gossip it’s perhaps as well I forget what feature article I read a  year or more ago (and as I recall from an Australian Buddhist woman rather than an irate American Christian) who considered herself seriously hurt by and disillusioned with Gilbert as person and spiritual guide. Regardless, I think readers should just ignore Gilbert’s theory of inspiration.

ART IS MORE THAN FICTION WRITING

Beyond the whispering spirits one can’t help feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert’s notion of creative activity is considerably shaped by her undoubted talent for fiction and personal memoir. These are nonetheless in some respects the easiest forms of art – sometimes it’s like sitting down and tossing off a vivid, newsy letter or keeping a diary. It’s not identical to the struggles including with special techniques the dramatist or poet may have to wrestle with. Recently I was reading the biography of poet Ted Hughes, husband of poet Sylvia Plath. It soon becomes evident that for both of them capturing and retaining poetic inspiration (an aspect of the ecstatic function) requires rather specific conditions (often in isolation) that are marred or denied by everyday life. It is the rarest of rare poets like Shakespeare who could write poetry almost anywhere and quickly (without blotting a line according to Ben Jonson); but then Gilbert isn’t into special cases, still less genius.

Gilbert  is however an almost addictive writer or note taker in a way many writers aren’t necessarily. It seems that like De Beauvoir her day is dust and ashes when she has not written anything. Fair enough that’s just how she is, but it also the case such writing is effectively therapeutic, for self-expression and pleasure  rather than work or larger purpose, the reason she has no truck with complaining artists. She assumes artists do what they do because they have chosen that path – but if they are differently wired is that quite the case? – so the activity should give them pleasure just as it is without expectation of acceptance, reward or whatever.  If this sounds almost ascetical (and Gilbert even portrays herself as dedicating herself to writing during adolescence like a nun), in fact Gilbert’s outlook can also be almost breathtakingly selfish or self-regarding. “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people , I always think please don’t….I would so much rather you wrote a book in order to entertain yourself than to help me” (pp 98,99). For Gilbert there is no such thing as a vocation to write or do art; you don’t write for society, for individuals or a cause; and according to her ultra-American credo, providing you are willing and able financially to support yourself and will be bothering nobody unduly, you are at complete liberty to do whatever you please (including it seems those penis graffiti).

Again this is misleading. A great slice of significant art has been produced in service of some great idea and one can’t begin to imagine the likes of Dante, Milton, Victor Hugo, Dickens unless propelled by a sense of dedicated purpose to inspire, instruct or reform –Milton described the poet’s work as his life blood and did concede that the fame, which Gilbert doesn’t think should count, was some spur to the labour.

It is because there can be this element of vocation or at least sense of inborn necessity among artists, that something like their complaints which Gilbert so radically dismisses, is legitimate. She regards the emphasis on suffering and/or complaints arising from it, to be a legacy of especially Christian and German Romantic values that have allowed artists to carry on as though sentenced to harsh conditions under a cruel dictator (p.117). We can agree with her that there is a kind of artist who imagines if they are not in (or just acting the part of being in) pain, poverty or some dire bohemian situation half starved or their minds half addled by drink or drugs, they are not the real thing – we might call this the Kurt Cobain syndrome – but that’s not the whole situation by far.

MUCH ARTISTIC COMPLAINT IS JUSTIFIED.

It is quite possible, and especially so if you belong to the more vocational type of artist for whom ideas count more than immersion in life’s endless details,  that you may suffer the pain of non-connection and non-communication, feel truly blocked and half destroyed by publishers, critics, society and conditions in general. Shelley protested, “I have suffered the tyranny of neglect” and in the light of history and his biography that seems a fair enough, valid claim. The celebrated Ode to the West Wind was both a protest against and an imaginative effort to oppose what prevents the necessary role of bardic vision going out into the world.

Many artists anyway have plenty of reason for complaint because their conditions and permitted expectations are today often demonstrably worse than the average worker in ways that should not be tolerated in a civilized society. In the very age of grievance culture and stress upon victimhood, Gilbert wants none of it from the artists who might have more than usual reason to voice it. A century ago. Bernard Shaw helped found the Society of Authors to do at least something to improve the artist’s lot. The history of rejected and cheated authors is a long one (even the super-successful JK Rowling was rejected for Harry Potter twelve times). To this day the author will usually receive only a fraction of a book’s takings (somewhere between two and a half and twelve and a half per cent while the often necessary agent of which there are not enough to go round, may take up to 25 per cent). A huge slice of English literature would not exist if it had had to wait upon social acceptance and financial remuneration in the modern way. The likes of Milton, Thomas Gray, Shelley and Wordsworth in poetry had private means. Jane Austen’s prose wasn’t held up on financial problems. The Latin poets from Catullus to Martial were either comfortably off or had helpful wealthy patrons – the perfectionist, slow working Virgil had both advantages.

With or without means, by contrast the modern writer will often have to suffer unacceptably cavalier, dismissive behaviour from those who stand to affect their career and status.  Promises are easily broken, lies are often told, needless delays can be endless, payments not delivered, editors never available to discuss anything,  rules of contract not observed. Any old thing goes. (It’s true nowadays indie publishing is some help and a real alternative but a lot is involved and if only for publicity it is definitely still preferable to be published in the standard way). Much publishing and promotion can be a shark’s pool in which many are destroyed and devoured, feelings, health, the artist’s organization and planning of their life are simply not considered. Therapy itself might be required to cope. I have seen the problem for others, I have known it for myself – the life-destroying, soul-destroying, almost degrading experience of dealing with publishing and agency, is partially recorded in my Reflections of an Only Child. goo.gl/37dUUK

What the conditions of the artist argues for is less the mostly absent virtues of some American, egalitarian, competitive, over worked free-for-all that Gilbert seems to favour, but almost its opposite, a degree of almost elite privilege which would allow more scope to the observation of and experiment with life which art is about. The role of artist beyond the (self) entertainment level has some affinity with that of priesthood. Traditionally and certainly biblically, the priest, supported by the tithes which placed him above mundane concerns, was an individual expected not to compete but rather transcend, to live above ordinary conditions the better to study, observe and pronounce upon life. It was the same Bernard Shaw who helped found the Society of Authors who criticized the American Declaration of Independence declaring its doctrine of equality untrue and misleading. People are born with different and unequal levels of talent and ability  and one should organize society with that in mind.

PRACTICAL ADVICE: AVOID THE ARTS

Knowing what I know, I would never today lend encouragement to anyone keen to pursue a life in writing or the arts – or not unless I had perhaps first read their horoscopes to indicate their chance of fulfilment and success. And what would that entail? Gilbert denies there are any guarantees for success in the arts, but on especially a temporary basis there very definitely are  – with or without major talent and obvious relevance because sometimes, on a temporary basis, even the worst persons and ideas can get away with a few things given helpful celestial indications.

For success in many areas including authorship, one needs to have a strong Jupiter (it bespeaks fortune in general but not least in the realm of publishing and ideas) and something strong to Pluto to empower and relate to the masses. (Who’s Who has been found to be full of Jupiter/Pluto people). Thus in the chart of Alain de Botton who has made hay in the unlikely field of popularized, applied philosophy, we find fortunate Jupiter fortunately trine Mars and the moon fortunately trine Pluto for outreach to the masses. To make it big in fiction, it helps that George RR Martin of Game of Thrones has writer’s Mercury opportunity sextile publishing Jupiter and surprising, original Uranus on a world point (O Cancer). JK Rowling has publishing Jupiter in communicating Gemini, with Mercury spectacularly conjunct fixed star Regulus in Leo (potential mega fame) and Moon conjunct Uranus and Pluto for massive popular outreach. Elizabeth Gilbert herself could hardly go wrong with publishing Jupiter conjunct surprising Uranus on another of the 6 world points at 0 Libra (itself the marriages and relationships sign which is why she has done herself best on that subject).

I will not discuss here my own horoscope and chequered experiences – as said, anyone can refer to my memoir for at least some of the stories,but I will say against some of Gilbert’s claims that fate plays a considerable role in the life of the artist who is perhaps more on the wheel of fortune than most so that the idea one chooses to be an artist or chances to get successful  is controversial. In my own case unusual circumstances  of overseas residence where I was forbidden to take employment, kept me at writing when I would not  otherwise have got so involved. While that is perhaps exceptional and  this isn’t the place for my story, it is the right place to sound warning signals against anything to do with a career in the arts in today’s circumstances. My advice is simply don’t touch it, don’t go near it, but if for whatever reason you must, then feel free to protest your lot and complain loudly. It’s not to be “boring” as Gilbert maintains. If sufficiently organized (but authors and artists fear the black balling which does go on and the effect on media connections too) it might produce some needed reform.

I seriously mean it that the “creative” life usually isn’t worth it in any form today. It can finish like imprisonment or a stay in the mad house, frustrating, exasperating, unprofitable, time wasting and degrading. After years of effort I finally seriously admitted as much  to myself when despite high recommendations  I was meanly refused for Penguin New Poets by one of Australia’s leading poets because I had unpublishably  included “such hopelessly archaic words as ‘conduct’ and ‘bestow’ “. That was the last straw and for more than twenty years I had not the slightest desire to write any more poetry. If that was wasted talent and in my case there is real reason to think so, so be it. Health and sanity are more important.

Paradoxically and ironically, my distinctly negative feelings do in their way, I suppose, lend support to Elizabeth  Gilbert’s notion of creative work today as best thought of as personal entertainment and in effect the therapy she doesn’t call it. However, against Big Magic theories I will always believe creativity involves a higher, more “sacred” function than the play-around materialism of modern life allows it to be. Almost certainly real art and its acceptance now awaits the inspirations of the coming era. For now the arts could be considered in their death rattle.

 

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2017 in creativity

 

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