"It seems to me that to organize on the basis of feeding people or righting social injustice and all that is very valuable. But to rally people around the idea of modernism, modernity, or something is simply silly. I mean, I don't know what kind of a cause that is, to be up to date. I think it ultimately leads to fashion and snobbery and I'm against it."
Jack Levine: January 3, 1915 – November 8, 2010
That's as a worker, not a consumer. Many such folk have no problem being on the consumption end of it.
Having had the argument I was engaged in over that great "liberal" cause, porn, many times before, I could have told you every trick that was going to come up on the pro-porn side. But there is one quite effective one for the real liberal* side that I know too.
Several years ago, while having that argument I turned it back onto the preening, self-righteous, self-satisfied porn proponents and asked them who in their family they'd be happy to have make being a porn actor a career choice. Their daughter or son, or siblings, their mother or father or their spouse? Why, if porn was good, wouldn't they want any of those people to go into that branch of sex work?
How about if their wife or husband, as their kids watched TV in the next room, was having sex for the camera with other professional porn actors? Would they be OK with their kids wandering onto the set? Would they introduce them to their co-workers? The number of such proposed hypotheticals for consideration are limited only to the extent that the content of pornography can be. You can guess the real answer by how many such people introduce their children and dinner guests to the professional porn actors who they have NOT invited to dinner. And that goes quintuple for porn producers and directors who might see a future in porn for their daughters and sons.
Only, and immediately, suddenly, and angrily, that made it different. The proposal that, porn, an industry with the full protection of the Supreme Court - none of whom, I will hazard the guess, have ever had to face what some poor folks have, a family member being forced by poverty, desperation or addiction, of becoming raw material in the porn industry - why, if porn is great and OK and the cause of the progressive and sophisticated, wouldn't they be perfectly happy to have any and all of the above involved in porn? Well, in my experience of posing that question to stalwart champions of the rights of porn merchants over the last three years, only one has, after much prodding and poking for an answer, pretended it would be OK with him. And, given the amount of prodding it took to get that answer, I didn't believe it for a second. Anyone who would be OK with their son or daughter being used in porn, penetrated by men who have penetrated so many other vaginas and anuses in their line of work, quite often without condoms, as per the market requirement and the demand of the producer and director, is either 1. lying, 2. mentally deficient, 3. sexually psychotic, themselves.
Once in a while you can read of a parent who has done that, sold their child into either prostitution or the porn industry, generally in exchange for the drugs they are hopelessly addicted to or under threat over a debt to drug dealers. Only I doubt even they are really OK with it. The porn industry swims in that same cesspool of those who would demand that, the high end of porn is just the deck level of a scow floating in it. When you see one of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of anonymous young people who are in the porn industry, you don't know if they're one of those people who were introduced to that form of sex work under that kind of compulsion. Many others are forced into it by other forms of desperation, some are forced into it by pimps or other such criminals.
Only for the affluent pseudo-liberal, that world is most often quite remote from their families and themselves. The people whose bodies are the material of porn are as remote from them as the people enslaved and killed to make the low priced consumer products they love to be seen wearing and using - until one of the all too rare media exposés ruffle their beautiful minds and they change to a brand not mentioned in the story. And the porn issue allows them to strike a pose for that supreme value of the pseudo-liberal mind, which is for the rights of words and images. Imagining themselves as some cinematic hero doing just what they're doing, with as little cost to themselves or effort. Playing some hero spouting pseudo-Jeffersonian phrases written by a hack writer. Pseudo-liberalism to a great extent is the product of the publishing industry which had the most obvious of financial interests in the elevation of those above even the rights of people who can be destroyed for profit. They've created the image of the pure, good and stalwart champion of pornography for the imagination of such champions of liberal-libertarianism who keep the reality of what they propose well away from themselves.
It's when you bring it back to them, when you propose that they or their loved ones could exercise the "agency" - that fashionable trendy, strangely Milton Friedmanian and entirely empty slogan, alleged choice - to have sex for view that you find out how they really feel. In my experience, it's especially obvious when you propose it to men for themselves or their sons, especially the proposal that they might consider being "gay for pay" as the industry term goes.
If a career as a porn actor were such a great thing, one thing you can be certain of is that the rich would flood that workforce. Affluent parents would encourage their children to consider it, certainly their less bright but photogenic children, if not others. Wealthy people, those who champion pornography as good would show their friends and colleagues their children's work, they would brag about their spouses work and take pride in their parents pornographic legacy. Only that scenario sounds entirely ridiculous, doesn't it. That's because they are lying about how they feel about it. Porn is OK for the people who have no choice except to "act" in it, poor people and the odd, really odd, affluent person unconnected to them who chooses it without financial need. But it's nothing they'd ever want to have done to someone they love or themselves.
Anyone who would not be willing to have their son or daughter, their brother or sister, mother or father, or, indeed, themselves, penetrated by a phallus that had penetrated many people with the history of intercourse typical in the porn industry, is a total hypocrite when they maintain that they believe porn is good. They're just practicing the same attitudes about labor and economic and sexual and class inequality that the worst of conservatives do. They are not liberals, they are pseudo-liberals, a species of libertarian conservatives with liberal pretensions.
* That is liberal in the traditional American sense, liberal as in the moral and political conviction that there is an absolute moral obligation to treat people well, respecting their dignity and needs, including their personal safety, bodily safety, their right to not be exposed to violence, both physical and violence done to their spirit. The abuse and violation of people in all of those ways is what pornography teaches, it caters to people who are sexually gratified by seeing other people used and turned into objects, it always ramps that up into the full program of their degradation and the destruction of their dignity and their sacred essence, including their most basic rights. In doing that, most if not all of the people used in the porn industry will be subjected to those and, whenever there is actual sexual penetration involved, it will expose them to health and life threatening infections and injuries.
The ever predictable and never original Steve Simels did the journalistically minimalist thing in criticizing what I wrote yesterday by quoting Roy Edroso at alicublog, the effective part of the quote was a variation on the old and mouldy pseudo-liberal chestnut:
"No one can prove that oceans of internet porn have done anything worse to humanity than give Goldberg another opportunity to embarrass himself..."
First, the demand isn't for evidence of people harmed by pornography it is for the production of a "proof" that porn is harmful, that it damages people. While the demand for proof sounds impressive, it is frequently, and obviously in this debate, a dodge for the pro-porn side. "Proof" short of and, in my experience, even up to the level of mathematical proof can always be rejected as insufficient by someone who really isn't interested in whether or not their claims are valid. Anyone who demands "proof" in this case should be considered as showing they're not interested in evidence, they are exposing themselves as unwilling to consider evidence and, I will assert, are uninterested in the people who are harmed by the porn industry. They are as indifferent to those victims as any consumer who wants the shiny, attractive and chic items produced by slave labor in the third world as indifferent as others who disregard people harmed by dangerous products. So, their championing of porn is real liberal and lefty of them, isn't it.
NOTE: In researching this post I looked at some Wikipedia articles on this topic which have obviously been "edited" to present the porn industry line on these issues. I wouldn't trust anything on this topic "edited" by unknown and undocumented people. Wikipedia is frequently a venue for industry propaganda or, at the very least, suspiciously reflective of that.
With the ease with which you can find people harmed by porn it is pretty astonishing that Village Voice and other, uh, journalists are always missing it. You can start at the blindingly obvious, those whose bodies and lives are on the line in its production. As I mentioned here a few weeks back, you can see minor children who are raped to produce porn as easily as taking a close look at Tumblr porn and noticing the obviously minor, even pre-pubescent bodies being penetrated by phalluses I would imagine neither Edroso nor Simels would consent to have violently jabbed into their anuses, in a few instances, two phalluses at the same time with the viewer pleasing assurances that it is painful and damaging. But, as I said on that occasion, I will not provide links to such material. A number of them are "daddy" "twink" incest fantasy blogs, where one can find such young rape victims with ropes or neckties being pulled taught around their necks as they are raped by adult men or slapped and verbally abused by them. Much of such porn, freely available online, touts that the child being raped is from Russia, Eastern Europe or the third world.
Though I suspect Edroso and Simels would point to the obviously ass-covering and obviously false disclaimers that the Tumblr porn accumulators post that all of the people in the pictures, GIFs and clips are 18 or older. Only we're not supposed to demand PROOF of that, are we. I don't find it even credible that they believe it themselves. Eventually those who want pedophile themed porn will want the real thing, the real rape of children. It would be very easy to prove that anyone they present was a legal adult if they had a policy of never showing the image of anyone not verified as being, in fact, a legal adult at the time of the filming. Oddly, I've never seen a Tumblr blog that had that policy. It's certainly not Tumblr's policy to demand that level of truth in advertising or proof of child protection. Neither have I ever seen a pro-porn "journalist" demand such a policy.
Then there are the adult sex workers who have contracted HIV or been exposed to the possibility of infection on movie sets, there are lists, stories, and testimonies online. For the illiterate among those demanding such "proof" YouTube videos listing the necrology of porn actors who died of AIDS, some on the the job. Few porn actors are penetrated by or penetrate only one person. Many porn actors have sex with many different people every year if not week. It is not much different from prostitution in what the job consists of. And it is the director and producer and the, um, writer(?) who decide what they're going to do. The idea that porn actors are any more in control of their work conditions than coal miners is an idiotic fantasy. I'm sure you could find a few very well paid porn workers who would claim that, especially those who go into producing or directing porn themselves but it is clearly not true of the majority of the people whose bodies you see on the screen or on the page. Of course, the demand being for "proof" and with the possibility that the actors were infected for non-paid, non-filmed sex on their own time, it will be insisted that any case presented isn't "proof"*.
The number of porn actors who became addicted to drugs, alcohol, who committed suicide is a rather large but it, as well, would fall short of being the "proof" demanded. I can easily imagine the claim being made that they were psychologically damaged before or outside of the porn industry. As if that is an exoneration of an industry that would expose such mentally damaged people to the abusive objectifying story lines and scenarios that are found in pornography.
But, clearly neither of these two journalists, seem to have considered things from the point of view of the people in the bodies they enjoy seeing engage in dangerous sex. Which is kind of the idea of porn, isn't it? It's for people who don't want to consider the rights and dignity of other people who they enjoy seeing as objects for use and abuse and destruction. It includes the acculturation and theme of people as objects, domination and, frequently, abuse. There is, most often, the dominator and the dominated, sometimes several dominators to one who is dominated. Anyone who thinks people can be serially raped, either real or simulated, without sustaining some kind of damage, with the ever increasing violence and abuse that is demanded by the porn audience as they need to ramp it up so they, dulled by the sameness and repetition of porn, can masturbate to climax. Or, worse, to give them ideas of how their jaded and deadened libidos can achieve orgasm with people they convince to have sex with.
When it's the sex industry, the same standards for worker protection, child labor, etc. that a liberal would have little trouble seeing in the production of garments, electronic equipment of chocolate - if they cared to look - is of no importance to them as compared to the "rights" of the producers and sellers of porn. And by "rights" when it comes to the porn industry, that means their profits. The porn issue is about the best test there is of the actual liberalness of the liberal. And the pro-porn side fails that test.
The lies that porn is harmless always, always concentrate on the far more difficult to "prove" case that it harms the people consuming it in the general population. Making that case is far harder and whatever evidence that is produced can be denied with the ease with which the Zimmerman jurors overlooked that he was the one with the gun who pursued Trayvon Martin after being told not to by the dispatcher he was talking to and who threatened the kid who was walking home from the convenience store to watch basketball on TV with his father. The level of evidence demanded by them to prove Zimmerman's guilt is similar to that which the supporters of the porn industry demand of those who find the evidence available convincing. I will go into that in my next post.
* In one case, that of Lara Roxx who says she was infected on the set in Los Angles, the industry has launched a massive counterattack, including the claim that she infected Darren James on the set. As if that would have been disproof of the fact that actors are infected in the production of porn. The porn industry in Los Angles is engaged in an attempt to overturn about the only law requiring condoms in porn productions in the United States, pointing out that they could just move their production elsewhere in the United States to produce the condomless porn demanded by their consumers.
Note: I posted this before it was close to a final edit, again. Sorry for that.
Update: Someone wants to know why I'm picking on poor little Tumblr when there are thousands of other venues of porn online. First, I don't mind anyone making that case on my blog, that porn and even images of children being raped as porn is available for free online and I wish you had done so in a comment instead of a flaming. Second, that there are other corporations, some of them quite large and well known, who provide such images doesn't exonerate Tumblr. Third, there isn't blog space in all of a blogspot blog to make a comprehensive list, it being, as you point out, ubiquitious. Fourth, I'll treat porn sites with full equality when all of their product removes all dominator-dominated, rapist-raped, adult-child, etc. inequality themed pornography from their site. I'm under no obligation to treat those who promote inequality equally. In that instance, I will apply their own standards to them.
Update 2: Steve Simels, in a comment I have chosen not to publish, says, "To paraphrase the old joke --- hey, Sparky, YOU'RE the one looking at the dirty pictures. :-)." No, friends, your eyes don't deceive you, it's the heads I win, tales you lose, Catch 22 dodge, you get it in this argument every single time. Steve Simels is the kind of journalist who apparently thinks you can write about something you haven't researched or observed as anyone who has witnessed one of our brawls will, no doubt, have seen. One is always encountering such standards of intellectual practice among the supporters of pornography. If he would like to tell us how someone could write about pornography, against, or in support of it, for that matter, without looking at it or reading it, I'll publish that comment. But I mean how someone could write responsibly and honestly without gathering evidence to support what you write. I'd like his explanation of how that could be done.
As anyone who read what I posted over the past several weeks would know, I'm not an anglophile of any kind. I look at class-bound, aristocratically ridden, royal suckered, Murdoch duped Britain and sadly shake my head at how much those poor suckers have taken for so many centuries for so little reason. That doesn't mean I'm entirely without sympathy for that indentured and bound family, The Royals. I looked at Kate and William in their wedding day photos and I shook my head again thinking, "Those poor kids, they couldn't get away from this if they wanted to." And now the poor baby born to them. What in the world did he ever do to anyone to deserve the life he's going to have. As I type this I'm hearing a tabloid TV speculating on whether or not Kate has postpartum depression, as if they'd ever find out if she were or were not. I'm no anglophile, it's a horrible, inhuman system.
One of the most aggravating things about liberals - the real ones, the ones who hold that equality, rights and moral obligations are as real as the screen you're reading this on - is the belief that that means we owe those who oppose equality, universally held rights and a moral obligation to respect those a level playing field in politics. Politics is a special category of social action BECAUSE it holds the potential to destroy equality, equal rights through handing power to those who either deny equality or who believe they and their side is not morally obligated to respect and observe those rights. It also holds the potential to make equality and a decent life possible.
Among affluent, would-be, liberals, those with far less to lose than poor people, people in the working poor and, especially, the destitute, the superstition that they owed right wingers, fascists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, etc. an equal chance to gain power and destroy democracy, the common good, and, yes, the lives of many, many people is one of the stupidest, most ridiculous and most immoral of scruples. It will generally be fueled by some stupid saying by Voltaire or Jefferson, both of whom were quite able to be generous to the most depraved of political sides who posed no danger to them but did to large numbers of other people without their resources and position in society. Anyone who could, especially from a position of total safety, defend the rights of Nazis, the Rwandan mass murderers, Pol Pot to speech that led to the slaughter of huge numbers of people is, to put it plainly a preening idiot with no morals and no right to be considered any kind of liberal, certainly not in the American sense of that word.
We have no moral obligation to enable those who advocate inequality, the denial of rights or the denial of a moral obligation to respect the rights of each and every person to the necessities of life, an equal vote, and other benefits of life. The history of this, the last and each and every other century shows that such people are remarkably able to lie themselves into power where they destroy lives and the equality that is the best insurance against total depravity and despotism. Anyone who doesn't learn from the history of the Nazis and others who have gone from a multi-party election to putting the homicidal and genocidal despotism they promised their supporters into effect is willfully blind. The lesson of recent history includes that a "free market-place of ideas" with elections doesn't come with a safeguard against totalitarian fascism being the result. Real world events in as sophisticated a country as Germany was shows that faith in some unseen hand of nature, holding a society back from falling into the pit under the recipe for democracy simply isn't there. Reason is certainly not enough, helpful though it can be, neither is mere slogan based scrupulosity.
Liberals fell for some self-defeating lines, mostly at the behest of the publishing industry and the professional writers who had a financial interest in pushing that absurd line. Liberals do not owe anything to Nazis, fascists, Stalinists, Maoists, or any other anti-democratic political ideologues, we don't owe anything to pornographers, capitalists, those who legally enslave people and destroy them for profit and who use government to legalize their doing so. No, we don't owe them a thing. Their self-interest, their profit, which is the polluted soil their ideology grows from is not the same as the bases of liberalism, the respect for other peoples' welfare, their needs, their need for and right to the material and spiritual necessities of, not only life but a decent life, is, by right, superior. Egalitarian democracy, the only kind that deserves the name of democracy, is, in every way, superior to all of the alternatives.
Liberalism begins at a practical disadvantage in persuasion because it is always more difficult to persuade people that it is better to not be selfish than to be selfish, to sacrifice our comfort and luxury for other peoples and, indeed, the entire planet's needs. We don't need idiots posing as liberals adding the burden that insists that we owe the selfish even more than they've hogged for themselves already. Such liberals are the ones who turn first. They have no durable morals because they deny the necessary religious and metaphysical force that makes those durable so they have no problem throwing the poor and disadvantaged and those discriminated against under the bus. Especially if they get to preen and pose and pretend that they are being virtuous as they do it. Real liberals need to get over them and their polished lines, their theatrical and cinematic lies. Anything that results in or carries the risk of the opponents of equality and inherent rights gaining power endangers real people and the very real basis of all life. That and the people advocating that deserve our total and complete opposition, keeping them from power and defeating their program is the one and only reason for political liberalism to exist. It only exists to the extent that we do so.
Among the more obvious signs supporting my contention that American liberalism took a serious U-turn as it went from the, frankly, religiously based agenda based on equality, inherent rights and the moral obligation to respect those to an allegedly "scientific" or, more honestly, anti-religious "liberalism" - is the real character of so many of its idols and heroes. As with Darwin, their position in the pantheon in the original neo-liberalism, that abandonment of the values of real liberalism, depends on a superficial knowledge of what they said or did. Or, more often, it depends on the selected, highly edited or, if you will, "quote mined" version that their fans and supporters promote. The total destruction of that phony, papier-mâché figure head version of those heroes is as near as opening the lesser read items of their complete works. The successful suppression of the real person is also an indictment of the superficiality of so much of today's intellectual discourse, in this case, the "liberal" branch of that dead bush.
One of the things I wrote which got the most extreme of outraged denials by the self-declared "reality community" was indisputably true and entirely documented. Gertrude Stein, the emblematic "modernist" writer was an enthusiastic collaborator with the Nazi puppet, Vichy government of Philippe Pétain. That Stein translated Pétain into English in a lame-brained attempt to influence American opinion in favor of his government, that she wrote an adoring essay about him, in hopes of making the Nazi collaborator popular with Americans AS THE UNITED STATES WAS AT WAR WITH IT AND ITS PUPPET MASTERS - the actual, constitutional definition of treason - is absolute fact, she said so herself. That she was a prominent American Jew living the good life in occupied France as she collaborated and as other Jews were being sent to their deaths by the Vichy government is as undeniable as any other fact about that period.
It shocked me to first read her most shameful and idiotic act but it wasn't really surprising. I read a number of Stein's excerpts and would be bons mots and was somewhat aware of her substance before I attempted to choke down one of her books while I was in college, I'm not sure if it was Tender Buttons or Three Lives, with Stein it doesn't much matter what it is, but about the first thirty pages convinced me she was a true bull shit artist whose fame and repute was based in her superficiality and frivolous emptiness, on the most ephemeral novelty and not on any artistic ability. At no point did the genius she attributed to herself manifest. Asserting her own genius was one of the few intellectual enthusiasms that she sustained for any length of time. That is what the basis of the brain-dead admiration of Stein insists on. Far from being someone who took any kind of risk, Stein was the very embodiment of the empty headed, self-satisfied Babbitt retired to France, collecting up-and-coming art from up-and-coming artists at a good price, in at the beginning of a rising market.
Well after that, I read Katherine Anne Porter's three occasional pieces about her, climaxing in the brilliant take down of Stein, The Wooden Umbrella. I would recommend it to anyone as a decisive critique of Stein and her repulsive, superficial, self-centered and vulgarly irresponsible life and writing. I would also recommend her published exchange with the literary figure, Donald Sutherland, Old Woman River, published with it in The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. I completely agree with Porter's mature assessment of Gertrude Stein,
"I was getting her placed, her relation to the times and what her attitude really meant in political, human, all sorts of terms, I thought her a blight on everything she touched and I think so more than ever."*
Much of what fed my "more than ever" were the eventual revelations about her collaboration and far more than that. The current defense of Stein that she was a Jew doing what she had to do to survive the Nazi occupation is a clear lie. Stein was an American citizen, so was her companion, Alice Toklas. After even her absurd denial of the oncoming war couldn't resist reality, she opted to not leave France. She said in her repulsively would-be charming manner that, “it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food.” The problem to overcome in order to defend her crime is complex and not in her favor. Stein's long friendship with the French fascist Bernard Faÿ, their deep and complex literary, academic, and ideologically intertwined friendship is one aspect of it. Faÿ was a fixture in Pétain's government which allowed him to protect Stein and Toklas and, probably as important to her, her art collection. But, as mentioned, Stein had considered leaving France, which she could certainly have done with relatively little trouble before the United States entered the war. With her connections she probably could have managed to move her large collection of art as well.
It isn't possible to maintain that Stein was unaware of the Vichy policy on Jews, among the speeches of Pétain she translated were those banning Jews from holding positions of powers and those which called for a cooperation with the Nazis. Despite all of that Stein compared Pétain with George Washington:
... we [Americans] did not understand defeat enough to sympathise with the French people and with their Marechal Petain, who like George Washington, and he is very like George Washington because he too is first in war first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, who like George Washington has given them courage in their darkest moment held them together through their times of desperation and has always told them the truth and in telling them the truth has made them realise that the truth would set them free.
That was part of Stein's proposed introduction to her translations, of which Stein's editor, Bennett Cerf, said, in a note attached to the letter.
"For the records. This disgusting piece was mailed from Belley on Jan. 19, 1942."
In preparing this post I read this piece by Janet Malcolm, which only added to her repulsiveness. She quotes Eric Severeid, who was obviously charmed by Stein but even he couldn't help note her
She could not think politically at all. Thus she assured me: “Hitler will never really go to war. He is not the dangerous one. You see, he is the German romanticist. He wants the illusion of victory and power, the glory and glamour of it, but he could not stand the blood and fighting involved in getting it. No, Mussolini—there’s the dangerous man, for he is an Italian realist. He won’t stop at anything.” She did not understand Fascism; she did not understand that the moods and imperatives of great mass movements are far stronger and more important than the individuals involved in them. She knew persons, but not people.
The reports of Stein nominating Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize are convincing. She was a right winger, a rich trust-fund baby, decadent, superficial fraud, promoting her "genius." Her declaration of her genius is the only thing distinguishing about her and she stole even that act from Oscar Wilde who did so much more to earn the title, though I wouldn't hold him as having actually been one. He was certainly deeper on those occasions he wasn't playing the fop. Stein was only a fop and her act grows really tedious through the sameness of her production.
Her being a lesbian as well as Jewish are often used to shield her from the fact of her treason, her collaboration with the puppet regime that murdered millions of Jews and many gay GERMAN men. The fact that the elderly lesbian who was Jewish and who had so many friends in the Vichy puppet show AND WHO WAS MORE THAN EAGER TO PRODUCE PROPAGANDA FOR THE NAZI PUPPETS FOR THE AMERICAN AUDIENCE all rendered her a useful tool, a one-woman Potemkin false front, a one-woman Theresienstadt posing no danger to Nazism but useful as a tool of deception. And unlike the ghetto full of young people able and willing to resist their murders, the murders of their children, Stein, the human black hole of ego, was guaranteed to never give them any problem before her imminent death in her permitted comfort by natural causes. I doubt Toklas could have reliably escaped liquidation after she stopped being associated with the dead Stein. The Nazis only cared about gay German men who wouldn't produce more members of the master race, they were quite prepared to overlook gay Nazis and gay men of nationalities and races who they meant to dominate or destroy. They certainly wouldn't have cared about the sexual practices of Stein and Toklas. If the Nazis hadn't been defeated Stein and Toklas probably would have featured in an exhibit in one of the museums of "entartete Kunst" only doing what the pseudo-liberals have done, suppressing her Nazi collaborations due to their inconvenience.
I'll probably expand on this theme in the future.
* I would add, not just her but the corner of superficial, value free art that can't even be bothered to have content, values, moral positions or even more than an enervated and unchallenged novelty, concerned only with being sell-able and celebrity feeding. This includes most of what gets included in pop-music, the movies, TV etc.
But the threat was palpable. Professor Will notes that in April of 1944 - just 30 miles from where Stein lived - 44 Jewish children were "seized and deported to Auschwitz." All of them were murdered. New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who disclosed Stein's relationship to Faÿ in her 2007 book "Two Lives," perhaps understated the case when she concluded that Stein "did not behave well in World War II." "The full story of the relationship of modernist writers to fascist and pro-fascist regimes is just beginning to be told and Stein offers a fascinating case study of this relationship," Professor Will stated to BuzzFlash at Truthout. "It is hard to get at the complexities and dilemmas of this modernism/fascism nexus if we only see a sanitized 'Saint Gertrude' image of Stein. She was a complex, layered, in some ways heroic, but in some ways despicable individual. The fact that her writing is so obscure has allowed people to say almost anything about her and up to this point the discussion around her has been mostly hagiographic. Looking at the facts of her life, her politics, even her aesthetic principles (which are more conservative than you would think) allows for a much fuller and more realistic picture of Gertrude Stein to emerge." Two recent exhibitions involving Stein in San Francisco raise the question that Professor Will asks about historic accountability when it comes to artists and revered literary figures. Should how one lives one's life as an artist or literary figure become a vital part of an art exhibit? Does the "industry" of promoting certain "hallowed" figures as branded artistic figures need to be balanced by vigilant historical accuracy and debate? ... The second question for the Contemporary Jewish Museum is how could it promote Stein as its featured exhibit at the same time that it was holding a showing of the art work of Charlotte Salomon? Salomon, according to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, was "a young Jewish artist from Berlin, [who] worked feverishly between 1940 and 1942 to produce approximately 1300 paintings before she was arrested by the Nazis in 1943, transported to Auschwitz and killed at the age of 26." She was five months pregnant when she was gassed, after being captured in, ironically, southern France. Sonia Melnikova-Raich, who emigrated from the Soviet Union 25 years ago, felt that this type of historical "cleansing" of anything that would do damage to the favorable image of Gertrude Stein was similar to what she had seen done to some Soviet "heroes" and official cult figures. In an article for the Bay Area Jewish Weekly, Melnikova-Raich charges that "the current exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum 'Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories' noticeably lacks a sixth story."
Having listened, probably a few dozen times, to Samuel Barber's masterpiece, his setting of part of James Agee's wonderful short story, Knoxville: Summer 1915, yesterday the last lines struck me as profoundly sad.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
At first it struck me how sad it was that his mother and father (who would die the next year) his aunt and uncle, who he lived with and who he'd presented with such loving tenderness would never really know James Agee. It could have been the feeling of any gay man at that time when it was impossible to talk about such a deep and important part of ourselves, especially to our families and Agee was born more than forty years before I was and my parents were New England liberals. But you couldn't talk about it here in the 1950s and early 60s either. At least that's how it struck me at first. I would guess that would have also resonated for Samuel Barber who was also a gay man of Agee's generation. The sense of alienation from our own families was one of the worst and most damaging aspects of having being gay unmentionable. You don't get past the damage that does to you.
But then I saw something deeper than that, Agee, writing when he was an adult said, that those who treated him "as one familiar and well-beloved in that home" would not ever be able to tell him who he was. James Agee seems to have some unmet need of being told who he was. Part of that would be the validation of who he was, the kind of validation of parents and family who feel free to easily and uninhibitedly acknowledge the maturation and sexuality of a straight child. That was something that almost never was available to a gay child. While I can imagine a straight person looking back on their loving family talking of his place in his family thinking of himself as having been, "one familiar and well-beloved in that home," in such a term of removal, it would almost certainly be far more common among gay people of my and earlier generations. I'd guess that even gay children today have that experience in most cases. Agee's whole piece, of which Barber's text only uses the last few paragraphs, is all about the observation of, is a description of the people of his area of Knoxville in the evening, after the business day is over and their real lives, in their homes and with their families are happening. Especially, what he saw while he was, "successfully disguised to myself as a child."
It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now, it is of a contemporaneous atmosphere that has little to do with them: that of fathers of families, each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale in the unnatural light and his face nearly anonymous, hosing their lawns.
The description of watering lawns is the longest part of it, it must have been his father, as well as other men in the neighborhood he was describing, the part Barber set comes after the hoses are put away. As I said, his father would die the next year, he was clearly thinking of him throughout the piece, making it plain how much he loved him. But Agee doesn't seem to think they really see him and they seem as incomprehensible to him as animals.
But the men by now, one by one, have silenced their hoses and drained and coiled them. Now only two, and now only one, is left, and you see only ghostlike shirt with the sleeve garters, and sober mystery of his mild face like the lifted face of large cattle enquiring of your presence in a pitch dark pool of meadow; and now he too is gone. If he was remembering his father, that mutual incomprehension, the feeling that his understanding of him was so far of the mark, it is devastatingly sad. But that leads to a larger question of how much those as close as that to us can know us and what that means. As a writer, that knowing would probably be intimately tied to the ability to articulate it. Throughout the piece Agee seems to be straining against the words, against the impressions and images to put more into words than can be done. Agee famously wrote Knoxville pretty much impromptu, not revising what he wrote in about an hour or ninety minutes, producing a masterpiece of short literature. Reading it, listening to the text as set by Barber, it's hard to imagine revision would get Agee closer to what he was trying to say but couldn't. I find the music helps clarify it, this could be about as good an example of how music can do things for words that words themselves can't do. Though in the end, true to the text, Barber wasn't able to go to the very reality of it, the reality that Agee had to live, that he had to live and remember.
Perhaps it's his need to understand that keeps him from that final act of realization. Looking back on that scene with the knowledge of what was to come, of his father's death, of his own maturation as a gay man and the life he would lead, looking back on the yet to come separation that would almost inevitably include as he came to sexual maturity, of the inevitable alienation from people who meant such a profoundly deep much to him.
How much of that alienation from our experience of love is caused by our need to make it respectable through grammar, diction, spelling and punctuation enters into it. Those things he was talking around can't be put into words and our educations, our culture tells us only to trust those things we can put into words. Even the demonstrated love of our families, established in years of proof, not in a declaration that could be false or mistaken or misunderstood but in years of real proof, of the doing of it. We are always depending on declarations of what we feel, what we think what we believe and know when it's the act, what's done that is the real substance and proof of that truth.
Here's a wonderful recording of a live performance by Eleanor Steber, who commissioned the setting of Knoxville from Barber and Edwin Biltcliffe playing piano. It says it better than I have.