Socialist fantasy

I did catch some of the closing ceremony. Just as China seems to have forged a new kind of communism, it seems to have forged a new kind of communist artistic style. Before, the only style allowed in Marxist regimes was socialist realism. Now we seem to have socialist fantasy.

Socialist realism had to consist of character types, with evil capitalists and a ridiculous and sinister middle class (still a Hollywood staple!), opposed by muscular workers and large groups of the noble proletariat. Based on what I saw at both the Olympic ceremonies, which would have to have been party-approved, this new style still rejects individualism, which would still be bourgeois and counter-revolutionary, and is highly collective.

We still see nothing but groups and individuals, all alike, taking their place in the groups. But this socialist fantasy–as we see in those lit up figures flying around–is fanciful and future-oriented. It is built around mass unity, rather than class conflict. It emphasizes wealth to the point of conspicuous consumption, though it is national wealth rather than anything that belongs to individuals.

This kind of communism, I suspect, will prove far more formidable–and appealing–than the old.

Tyranny as art

George Will, in an insightful column on Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Russia’s Power Play, makes the best comment I have seen on the opening ceremonies of the Olympics:

For only the third time in 72 years (Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980), the Games are being hosted by a tyrannical regime, the mind of which was displayed in the opening ceremonies featuring thousands of drummers, each face contorted with the same grotesquely frozen grin. It was a tableau of the miniaturization of the individual and the subordination of individuality to the collective. Not since the Nazi’s 1934 Nuremberg rally, which Leni Riefenstahl turned into the film “Triumph of the Will,” has tyranny been so brazenly tarted up as art.

Harold Meyerson offers a reading of the event, which he thinks will be turning point, with the world turning away from American-style democracy in favor of Chinese-style omnipotent and benevolent authoritarianism:

If ever there was a display of affable collectivism, it was filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s opening ceremonies, which in their reduction of humans to a mass precision abstraction seemed to derive in equal measure from Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl. (Much of Berlin’s 1936 Olympics, we should recall, was choreographed by Riefenstahl to fit the fascist aesthetics of her film “Olympiad.”) The subject of Zhang’s ceremonies was a celebration of Chinese achievement and power, at all times stressing China’s harmonious relations with the rest of the world. Its masterstroke, however, wasn’t its brilliant design but the decision, during the parade of the athletes, to have Chinese flag-bearer Yao Ming accompanied by an adorable 9-year-old boy who survived the recent catastrophic earthquake that killed many of his classmates, and who returned, after he had extricated himself from the rubble, to save two of his classmates. When asked why he went back, the NBC broadcaster told us, the boy said that he was a hall monitor and that it was his job to take care of his schoolmates.

That answer may tell us more than we want to know. He could have gone back because his friends were still inside. Instead, he went back because he was a responsible little part of a well-ordered hierarchy. For all we know, he might well have gone back even if he weren’t a hall monitor, but his answer — whether spontaneously his own or one that some responsible grown-up concocted for him — works brilliantly as an advertisement for an authoritarian power bent on convincing the world that its social and political model is as benign as any democracy’s.

What Russia did last Friday was appalling, but it ultimately poses no systematic challenge to the world’s democracies. What China did last Friday was entrancing, but its cuddly capitalist-Leninism, already much beloved by our major banks and corporations for its low-wage efficiency, poses a genuine economic challenge to the messier, unsynchronized workings of democracies. A nation that can assemble 2,000 perfectly synchronized drummers has clearly staked its claim as the world’s assembly line.

China has found how tyranny and economic prosperity can go together. If China really is the nation of the 21st century, what the USA was in the 20th, that kind of authoritarianism really may be the wave of the near future. Dictatorships really can be more efficient than Democracies in “getting things done,” which is what even Americans now want from their government. We are not sure what we want done and we citizens do not want to be bothered with figuring it out, preferring to leave that to the experts and to state power. Greek democracy was abandoned; the Roman republic gave way to Emperor. Couldn’t that happen with us too?

Christian Samizdat?

Speaking of Solzhenitsyn. . . .At the Circe conference, Barbara Elliott spoke about the role of writers in bringing down Soviet Communism, something she documents in her book Candles Behind the Wall.

Though Writers and Artist Unions could give creative folks a good, prestigious living as long as they conformed to socialist ideology, those who did not were consigned to prison camps or insane asylums. (When I was in Estonia, I attended a birthday party for a poet who had just been released from a mental hospital where he spent many years for writing an anti-communist poem.)

A number of dissidents, though, resolved to bypass the totalitarian culture and create a “second culture.” They would write novels, short stories, plays, essays, and create other works of life that were committed to just “telling the truth” about life under communism. They would bypass the official publishing houses and distribute their work via secret printing presses and illegal copy machines. This was called “samizdat,” or “self-publishing.” People would get a manuscript, read it, then make more copies and distribute them to their friends. After awhile, denizens of the communist empire began seeing through the lies and fallacies of the regime until they no longer took communist ideology seriously. Eventually, the communist house of cards collapsed in an unprecedented peaceful revolution.

Do you think the time might come–or is now here–when Christians might oppose and undermine our secularist culture with a samizdat movement that promotes a “second culture”? This would entail not just writing evangelistic stuff that could not be published in the mainstream but “telling the truth” about the culture today. I could see stories that reveal what abortion is, satires of contemporary education, critiques of the intellectual establishment, films that anatomize what is happening to our families, poems against sexual immorality, music and art that express a Biblical worldview, and on and on.

The process of Samizdat is easier now than ever with the internet giving, in effect, everyone a printing press and a distribution outlet. Most Christian writers and artists currently seem to be caught in the syndrome of trying to make it in the mainstream or of trying to find commercial success. What if Christians set aside commercialism entirely and created for free? Obviously, things are not so bad yet as under the Soviet Union, but are there things Christians could learn from Solzhenitsyn and company?

Sacramental theology & the imagination

The notable Christian thinker Peter Leithhart has written an essay entitled Why Evangelicals Can’t Write on the difficulty evangelicals seem to have in writing good fiction. It all comes down, according to Leithart, to the colloquy at Marburg where Zwingli rejected Luther’s affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Leithart, who is Reformed and not Lutheran, sees Zwingli’s split between reality and meaning as having huge consequences for the Protestant imagination. You need to read the whole essay, but here is an excerpt:

Blame it on Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to “the real” without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and Hopeful are mere symbols, silhouettes of characters rather than characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog. Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do for a reason.

In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.

The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.

Leithhart contrasts this split of the imagination with Roman Catholic and Anglican authors who do have a sense of the sacramental.

A Zwinglian could counter, OK, so where are all of the great writers on the other side of Marburg, the Lutheran authors? Well, we would have to go to Germany and, especially, Scandinavia, where I suspect there are some good ones. Bo Giertz. Hans Christian Andersen? Most of us English speakers are oblivious to authors in different languages. Our own Lars Walker, who is a good novelist himself, might alert us to some. In English, Walter Wangerin is a fine writer, and his work has far more of the tangible universe than many other contemporary Christian authors from other traditions.

HT: Scott Stiegemeyer, who offers some of his own insights on the subject.

What do tattoos mean?

Richard Cohen asks why people get tattoos (which 40% of 26-40 year olds have) and, after showing how styles and commitments keep changing, poses a theory and an application:

I asked a college professor what she thought of tattoos, and she said that for young people, they represent permanence in an ever-changing world. But how is that possible? Anyone old enough and smart enough to get into college knows that only impermanence is permanent. Everything changes — including, sweetie, that tight tummy with its “look at me!” tattoo. Time will turn it into false advertising.

The permanence of the moment — the conviction that now is forever — explains what has happened to the American economy. We are, as a people, deeply in debt. We are, as a nation, deeply in debt. The average American household owes more than its yearly income. We save almost nothing (0.4 percent of disposable income) and spend almost everything (99.6 percent of disposable income) in the hope that tomorrow will be a lot like today. We bought homes we could not afford and took out mortgages we could not pay and whipped out the plastic on everything else. Debts would be due in the future, but, with any luck, the future would remain in the future.

Is that it, that tattoos reflect “the permanence of the moment,” or the attempt to make the moment permanent? I suspect that among the readers here, some of you fall within the tattooed 40%. I am curious about what the attraction is to having your body all carved up with needles to make a picture on your body. I’m not criticizing you. I’d just like to know the meaning of tattoos.

The poetics of Looney Tunes

Billy Collins, the former U. S. Poet Laureate, tells about how he was influenced as a poet by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and other Warner Brothers cartoons. The piece will open your eyes to both the creative process and the genius of those cartoon classics. You should read the whole thing, but here is a sample from Inspired by a Bunny Wabbit:

I think what these animations offered me besides some very speedy, colorful entertainment was an alternative to the static reality around me that dutifully followed the laws of the physical world. The brothers Warner presented a flexible, malleable world that defied Newton, a world of such plasticity that anything imaginable was possible. Bugs Bunny could suddenly pull a lawn mower, or anything else that might come in handy, out of his pants pocket, and he wasn’t even wearing pants. Flattened by a 500-pound anvil, Wile E. Coyote could snap back into shape in a heartbeat. A box containing a pair of Acme rocket-powered roller skates would arrive in the desert with no sign of a delivery service (though you suspected it would be called Ace Delivery).

Plus, characters could jump dimensions, leaping around in time and space, their sudden exits marked by a rifle-shot sound effect. Anticipating the tricks of metafiction, these creatures could hop right out of the world of the cartoon and into our world, often Hollywood itself to consort with caricatures of Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Monroe. Or Bugs would do the impossible by jumping out of the frame and landing on the drawing board of the cartoonist who was at work creating him. This freedom to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry.