A Knight’s YAWP
[24 May 2017]
"wrackers", adultery, Annie Proulx, Book Club, Book Review, Brokeback Mountain, depression, Eraserhead, Family Guy, fathers, journalism, Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, knots, Literature, Novel, Passive, Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complain, ships, The Gaurdian, The Shipping News, Working Class Men, Writers, Writing
It seems to me I could live my life A lot better than I think I am
–Working Man, RUSH
Anyone who suggests that Family Guy offers no intellectual opportunity clearly hasn’t watched the show. My reader will note I’m making this comment here and not in the YouTube comment section, and that’s largely for my own safety.
I stand by this comment though because recently (if you can call two months ago “recent”) I sat down and watched one of the new episodes on Netflix. It was a typical episode with plenty of cheap sex and fart jokes, but mid-way through the episode Brian was charged by Peter to get Chris (the teenage son) to become more intelligent so that he doesn’t become a big dope like his father. Brian exposes Chris to culture and naturally Chris becomes more intelligent. He even joins Brian at a book club at some nameless coffee shop. It’s during this small scene though, where I managed to flex a bit of my intellectual muscle, because Chris introduces the book The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and when Brian compares it to Portnoy’s Complaint Chris realizes what every regular viewer of Family Guys knows at this point: Brian is a fraud and a moron.
If the reader has never read Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel is about a neurotic, sex-obsessed Jewish man dealing with his mother issues and complicated sex-life. The Shipping News is a novel about a man who moves to a small New England town after his wife leaves him and sells their daughters to a sex-pervert. If you don’t know either of the plots, or if you haven’t read the books you might almost buy Brian’s bullshit or else you might just laugh and pretend to be in on the joke and just wait for Peter to say something wacky.
But I start with this defense of Family Guy to really get into Proulx’s novel because this scene was enough to get me to sit down and read her book. I had heard of The Shipping News before this, I just didn’t have any real context. Having read Brokeback Mountain several times, and realizing that Proulx’s is probably one of the best proseists since Nabokov, I decided to buy a copy of the book. We had a copy at the library, but I needed to mark in the book and libraries tend to frown upon that. In fact, let me be clear as a library employee, most librarians would like to hire Seal Team Six to track people who mark in books down and destroy them. Just, so the reader knows next time they return a book with dog-eared pages.
The Shipping News hit me in a way I honestly didn’t expect. I recognized, like I said before, after reading Brokeback Mountain that the woman was a brilliant prose writer, but the novel was powerful in the fact that every page had at least some string of words that left me flat. Proulx doesn’t just write a narrative, she manages to craft a menagerie of beautiful yet simple sentences that will remind the reader what great writing is and what can be accomplished when it’s done right. Proulx, much like Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury or Alice Walker, manages to blend poetics with prose into a style that is never pedantic or self-congratulating. Instead it raises her human characters into something akin to a Byzantine mosaic.
If it isn’t obvious I really, really enjoy her writing. But evidence speaks louder than words, and so looking at just one early passage in which she observes Quoyle (the protagonist) and his character one can see how she is setting up her novel and style:
He abstracted his life from the times. He believed he was a newspaper reporter, yet read no paper except the Mockingburg Record, and so managed to ignore terrorism, climatological change, collapsing governments, chemical spills, plagues, recession and failing banks, floating debris, the disintegrating ozone layer. Volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, religious frauds, defective vehicles and scientific charlatans, mass murderers and serial killers, tidal waves of cancer, AIDS, deforestation and exploding aircraft were as remote to him as braid catches, canions and rosette-embroidered garters. Scientific
journals spewed reports or mutant viruses, of machines pumping life through the near-dead, of the discovery that the galaxies were streaming apocalyptically toward an invisible Great Attractor like flies into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. That was the stuff of other’s lives. He was waiting for his to begin. (11).
This opening description of Quoyle always reminds me of Camus or Dostoyevsky and I use those comparisons carefully. Quoyle as a man is almost the existential anti-hero similar to those masters because, as Proulx carefully lists the great tragedies and struggles facing mankind, Quoyle seems entirely above or below it and so is oblivious to concerns of most of the common humanity. He is almost Raskalnikov creating his own morality; he is almost Meursault oblivious as to whether his mother died today or yesterday. What separates these existential champions from Quoyle though is the fact that, in his own way, Quoyle is simply a pathetic man drifting through life. I would argue he might be what’s sometimes referred to as a Paragon, but the problem with that word is that it implies a strength of character that really doesn’t exist in Quoyle until the end of the novel. He’s hardly a man of great integrity or supreme passion, or even of destiny and this is seen especially as he falls for his wife Petal.
Petal is a bitch. I’m just being honest. Quoyle’s opening act involves falling for Petal, who is a loose woman who marries him despite her own nature, and then proceeds to make the next six years of his life a living hell. In another early passage the reader is given a chance to observe how their relationship operates, and further sees how Quoyle is hardly a man of great passion:
One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound the television and, after a while, squeaking, squeaking, squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and the stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears. How could something done in another room by other people pain him so savagely? Man Dies of Broken Heart. His hand went to the can of peanuts on the floor beside the bed.
Quoyle believed in silent suffering, did not see that it goaded. (16).
The reader may be disturbed by this passage, because often in narratives the cheating spouse is interrupted upon. This is the stuff of melodramas and political thrillers, but Proulx is careful to keep Quoyle in the bedroom to bring out a certain point about Quoyle’s nature, and thus also the nature of certain portions of humanity. There are people in this world who prefer to quietly suffer and keep whatever pain is in their hearts. This may seem ridiculous to some, but as someone who suffers from undiagnosed depression this pain is all too real.
I recognize this is a hazardous comment but depression is in many ways a heightened form of narcissm. The mind becomes supremely focused on the ego, specifically how miserable it is and how disconnected it is to other people. I usually call my spells of depression my “raincloud” moments, because it reminds me of the old bits on the Loony Tunes when a character would walk around chased by a small raincloud that would pour down only upon them. That’s just the way it feels. And most of the time, despite the fact that I have friends who would listen to me and offer their emotional support, I keep my sadness (and suicidal thoughts) to myself because, like Quoyle, I would prefer to suffer in silence. That pain, I assure my reader, is unbearable, but what’s truly pernicious about it is that I know a solution is possible, I just haven’t decided do anything about it.
My own condition is probably why I loved The Shipping News so much, and why I feel it’s painfully relevant. Beneath everything that happens in the plot, the novel is an exploration of love and pain, and how those two are eventually reconciled. Quoyle marries Petal who cheats on him regularly before eventually running away with a man and literally selling their two daughters to a stranger who is caught before he can rape them. Petal dies in a car crash with her lover, and Quoyle, who observes all of this in a kind of daze, eventually moves in with his aunt in Newfoundland where he takes up a job as reporter writing “The Shipping News.” This involves writing about ships, and Proulx is effective in creating the atmosphere of New England, while showing how the people of this region depend upon such structures.
In one passage one of Quoyle’s fellow reporters tells him about the shipping tradition:
“Truth be told,” said Billy, “there was many, many people here depended on shipwrecks to improve their lots. Save what lives they could and then strip the vessel bare. Seize the luxuries, butter, cheese, china plates, silver coffeepots and fine chests of drawers. There’s many houses here still has treasures that come off wracked ships. And the pirates always come up from the Caribbean water to
Newfoundland for their crews. A place of natural pirates and wrackers.” (172).
At first glance I see the reader’s reaction, what does this have to do with depression, heart-ache, and pain in general? This just seems a small local history lesson. At first I would agree with my reader, but looking at this quote in relation to everything that happens I believe this quote actually furthers the idea self-obsession and pain that works throughout The Shipping News, because this quote reveals a human need for self-preservation. The “wrackers” mirror Petal and Quoyle because both people ultimately pursue their own self-interest.
People take what they need, oblivious to the long-lasting pain it will cause other people because they are concerned with their own interests, desires, and needs. Proulx is continuing this idea that human beings are selfish, and that selfishness blinds us to pain that we might be causing others
One more quote should demonstrate this and then I will address my reader’s complaint. Quoyle is talking with a few of the men who work with him in the newspaper office and they are discussing their boss:
“Have you ever noticed Jack’s uncanny use about assignments? He gives you a beat that plays on your private inner fears. Look at you. Your wife was killed in an auto accident. What does Jack ask you to cover? Car wrecks, to get pictures while the upholstery is still on fire and the blood still hot. He gives Billy, who has never married or reasons unknown, the home news, the women’s interest page, the details of the home and hearth—must be exquisitely painful to the old man. And me. I get to cover the wretched sexual assaults. And with each one I relive my own childhood. I was assaulted at school for three years, first by a miserable geometry teacher, the by older boys who were his cronies. To this day I cannot sleep without wrapping up like a mummy in five or six blankets. And what I don’t know is if Jack understands what he’s doing, if the pain is supposed to ease and dull through repetitive confrontation, or if it just persists, as fresh as on the day of the first personal event. I’d say it persists.”
It dulls it, the pain, I mean. It dulls it because you see your condition is not unique, that other people suffer as you suffer. There must be some kind of truth in the old saying, misery loves company. That it’s easier to die if others around you are dying.” (221).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point, the social relevance of The Shipping News, but I still understand their reaction. This book sounds like one long depressing read about a mopish guy who is surrounded by other mopish people. Why should I waste my time reading a book that has no hope to it? Where’s the value in such a novel?
This would be a fair concern dear reader, if it was true. In fact The Shipping News has a happy ending as Quoyle begins to realize he has a real ability at writing the events of the day, and also begins to date a woman who helps him internalize his own sense of self-worth. And in fact the final passage of the novel ends with an observation of this dramatic change:
For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off the cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (336-7).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point the real artistic power of The Shipping News, and why Annie Proulx has accomplished something simply incredible. It’s not enough that the novel explores the complicated nature of love and pain and how these two forces tend to intertwine like strands of rope knots. There are men and women like Quoyle that navigate these forces passively, allowing the pain to internalize into something corrosive rather than actively trying to make something of themselves. Quoyle eventually overcomes this passivity and finds a real purpose in life, allowing the pain and tragedy of his past to become just that, the past. And so looking at the larger social relevance, The Shipping News is a beautiful reminder than human life is what you make it.
My depression is something that isn’t going away, but rather than let it define me I actively try to make something out of my existence. This shitty blog is a start. I also listen to Slipknot and Korn. I write fiction that no one reads. I spend time with my family. I work in a library. And, with no ego here, I’m a damn good cook.
The impulse to allow pain to dominate your life and consciousness is a strong one, and I know this from experience. It’s easy to crawl into your head and allow your pain to become the defining attribute of your existence. But that path is ultimately just narcissism and eventual death. Quoyle escapes this and finds a new purpose for living.
Writing about sinking ships may not seem like the way to build your life back, but it’s better than sitting bed devouring peanuts and feeling sorry for yourself.
All quotes taken from The Shipping News came from the Scribner paperback edition.
I didn’t really get a chance to incorporate this quote into the text, but it still felt important to provide it here in relation to this essay:
Benny Fridge sat with his hands folded slightly on his clean desk as though at an arithmetic lesson. His puffed hair made Quoyle think of Eraserhead. (286).
My regular reader, or any David Lynch fan, will understand this reference, and while I love its inclusion in the text, I’m a little bothered by it. Quoyle doesn’t seem like the type who would actually sit down and watch a film like Eraserhead, but at the same time I might be wrong. Quoyle and Henry Spicer are both lethargic men who are largely floating through life passively receiving their existence and agony rather than actively fighting it and making something of themselves.
So. Upon reflection, I think this reference actually works, but only if you’ve actually seen Eraserhead and realized that in Heaven everything is fine. You’ve got yours, and I’ve got mine.
Below are two articles from the guardian about Proulx’s novel as well as the film about the novel starring Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey
abuse of authority, All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee, chaos, Essay, film review, graphic novel, Happy Birthday, Humor, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, journalism, Libraries, Literature, metacognition, police brutality, science fiction, Spider Jerusalem, The Left Hand of Darkness, Transmetropolitan, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, Ursula K. Le Guin, White Tower Musings, Writer's Social Role, Writing
So much can happen and change over the course of a year. That’s the stuff of sentimental platitudes, but I’m writing my yearly reflection essay since the anniversary of this shitty-blog is today. And, as always, when I write about White Tower Musings and writings, I tend to get either mopey or maudlin. But in this case so much has actually happened over the course of a year and so I wanted to take a moment and really reflect on what has happened.
My regular reader will have determined at this point that I’ve graduated college and started working at the Tyler Public Library. I say this with no hyperbole, this job has saved my life. Part of the life changes that have occurred since last year was graduated from college with my master’s degree and then figuring out what was next. I flourished in graduate school because, I say this without any ego here, I was one of the good students who gave a shit and so I managed to succeed. What I didn’t realize was happening was that I was making myself, in my head, into something I wasn’t. Instead preparing myself for life after college I clung to school never wanting to leave. This in turn created the idea in my head that I was going to be a college professor, teaching English and writing and hopefully literature to freshmen and sophomore students. But that didn’t happen, or at least, not right away, and so for a period of about five of six months I sat in my house, living off the money I had saved from work, occasionally going out and having coffee with friends, desperate for work. When an offer finally came from a local community college I snapped it up imagining that teaching would make me happy, or, to be honest, that I would find a group of people like the one I had in graduate school or the writing center at UT Tyler. This was anything but and I realized quickly that I had sold the idea of teaching college to myself because I was an egoist. I thought that teaching would make me happy because it would be a chance for me to flex my intellectual muscle and that I would change people’s lives. I might have succeeded in the latter, but it became observable fairly quickly that I wasn’t a great teacher, I was, at best, passable.
But these birthday essays are always about metacognition, or, thinking about thinking. While I was teaching I was also still writing for White Tower Musings, and these essays tended to be my lifeboat. They kept me happy, or, at least, they gave me an outlet from which I could focus away from the frustrations of day to day reality. I wasn’t always thinking about the students, and if I was thinking about them it usually wasn’t positive thoughts. And then the suicidal feelings kicked in.
All of these thoughts, all of these feelings are still with me (it’s only been a about seven months since I quit my job at the college and started working for the library) but as I continue to wake up everyday and try to get in my 300 words I realize what this site has really meant for me. But I still think about the students in that class, specifically what I failed to convey and instill in them which is that writing and writers really can enact change.
About a year or two back the graphic novel book club that I’m a part of got around to reading a book entitled Transmetropolitan. It was a science fiction “dystopian” story about a reporter named Spider Jerusalem who has retreated to the mountains where’s he disappeared from society. His publisher tracks him down and informs him that he owes them two books or else they will track him down and sue him into a state of emotional, physical, and psychological poverty. Jerusalem comes down from the mountain and returns to “The City.” This nameless urban territory is impossible to describe largely because Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson manage to assault the reader with near constant bombardments. In “The City” there are advertisements for the President, family cannibal restaurants, the famous kids cartoon show “Sex Puppets,” religious organizations with titles like “fuck the Holy Gut Wound of St. Marc” and “Thor Needs Virgins,” hostels for de-frozen cryogenic patrons, and I could literally fill pages with all the back-ground that Spider Jerusalem encounters.
The book is broken up into a ten part series and, apart from its eerie similarity to the 2016 United States Presidential election, I’ve started reading the books one by one and am currently working through number 7, and while
I would love to sit down and write reviews of every book I’ve come to recognize that such impulses are largely fools errands. These essays come about because of whatever I’m feeling or thinking about at a certain time, and as my “third birthday” comes around Transmetropolitan has reminded me about the power of writing because of one small scene in the first book.
Spider Jerusalem is writing a column about a Police Riot that is attacking a group of people known as Transients, human beings that have blended their DNA with that of aliens. Jerusalem manages to sneak into the riot, get to the roof of a strip-club, and there, surrounded by strippers, he starts to write.
There’s a jungle rhythm beating out below me; the sound of truncheons hammering on riot shields, police tradition when the streets get nasty. I’m in Angels 8, above what will doubtless be called the Transient Riot. History’s only written by the winners, after all, and if the cops want it called the Transient Riot, then that’s how it’ll be.
Because there’s going to be Transient blood all over the place. And you know something? It’s not their fault.
The Transients couldn’t have managed this on their own. They’re just big kids who thought it’d be fun to live inside an alien body. A sane society would’ve tagged them for the waterheads they are and bought them a big playground. But no one even checked to see if their silly claim for succession was feasible. Civic Center just decided to stamp on them instead. They payed a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration. Spontaneous violence, the only excuse Civic Center would have to send in the riot cops. These people are bleeding down there for a scam.
It’s a show of power. How dare anybody ignore the authority of Civic Center? How dare a bunch of freaks try and think for themselves. So let’s go out and stomp on children, lunatics and incompetent, because by damn it makes out balls feel big. I can see a blatantly unarmed Transient unarmed man with half his face hanging off, and three cops working him over anyway.
One of them is groping his own erection.
I’m sorry is that too harsh an observation for you. Does that sound too much like the Truth? If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog’s cock about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t be seeing a Transient woman with blood on her face huddled in a porn-store doorway, clutching her belly. I wouldn’t be looking down at a dead boy, thirteen, he’s a day, draped over the hood of a police wagon. No one’s eyes would be bleeding from incapacity sprays of the nerve bomblets the cops are launching from Cranberry. I wouldn’t be surrounded up here by the people who have to live and work here, weeping openly.
Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence. You see, here’s how it works; Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. Your boss does what he likes. The asshole at the tollbooth, the bouncer at your local bar, the security guy who frisks you ate the clinic, the papers and feedsites that lie to you for the hell of it. They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.
This “riot” here, this terrible shit-rain visited upon a bunch of naïve and uppity fetishists; you paid for it. Lap it up. You must like it when people in authority they never earned lie to you. (62-7).
This was a rather long passage and partly because it was so long my contester will interrupt. What relevance does this passage have to anything or anyone? It just sounds like a bunch of sci-fi bullshit that doesn’t have any real connection to real life. Why should I give a damn about Spider Jerusalem or a bunch of alien-human hybrids?
My reader has a good point, and while I could answer it directly I’d prefer to let another writer do most of the work for me. Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I’ve only recently discovered but already she’s secured a place in my heart for her essays about the craft of writing and the importance of science fiction. In the introduction of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness she explores the idea of science fiction and what it can do:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
Transmetropolitan is a science fiction story because it predicts a future where technology has led to opportunity and comfort, but by and large Warren Ellis writes the world in such a way that capitalism and urbanization has led to a kind of cultural explosion where every conceivable taboo is relinquished and human beings are a mass of apathetic sensualists who are either dead inside or else completely oblivious to the suffering of other people.
And where does metacognition come into it?
In the last three years I’ve watched my country change into something odd. Protests are becoming far more common, and tragically so is police action against such protests. In the last three years the social role of journalists seems to have improved, but by that same token the populace is splintered by their “news preferences” which has led to some institutions being labeled “fake news.” In the last three years the issue of race has become something that has invigorated social rights activists, and by the same measure “white-lashing” has increased as bigots have warped and twisted political slogans and mantras into something that benefits their own ideologies. In the last three years there have been enormous political and social strides for queer people, and at the same time political actions hellbent on labeling queer people as perverts and cretins has never been stronger.
Absorbing my culture I think back to the image of Spider Jerusalem perched on the roof writing his column. It’s a simple image, but one that has become iconic. The writer and their typewriter, or laptop if you prefer something more contemporary, represents intellectual activity, but it also tends to become synonymous with change and power. Writers observe and absorb their cultures before writing their take which can often translate exactly what people are thinking or feeling and inspire change.
Looking at the last lines in the film All the President’s Men you get a sense for what’s possible when writer’s do their job right:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
But what does any of that have to do with my shitty blog?
I don’t enact change, real change anyway. Most of my stats demonstrate that most the people who find this site are people looking for pornography or else help writing papers for their English 1301 course. I’ve said this all before in previous Happy Birthday essays, but it warrants repeating because after three years I realize I fucked up tremendously with those students because of my selfishness. I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a great writer, and while I do have some talent, the reality is what I’ve said it is: I’m just another nobody with a shitty blog.
But even if I haven’t accomplished something of great merit, I can rest on the fact that I’ve written and brought attention to other great writers whose work has and will continue to inspire the next generation of young thinkers and skeptics and journalists and novelist who will look at the world and see something wrong or beautiful and want to write about it.
I’ve thought more and more that I would love to publish the essays here as a book and title it The Work Thus Far. It seems fitting. No matter how many books I read, no matter how many essays I write, it never feels like there’s a real end. The writer, the Great Man, sits at his keyboard typing words out and throwing them into the great sea of the internet hoping somebody out there will care. The writer writes, and in the end that’s all I could ever really ask for.
Thanks for three years dear reader.
All quotes from Transmetropolitan Vol 1 were taken from the Vertigo paperback edition. The quote from All the President’s Men was provided by IMBD. The quote from Ursula Le Guin’s Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness can be found by following the link below:
anal penetration, Art, artist, big dicks, Bisexuality, blowjob, F. Valentine Hooven III, Female Masculinity, Gay, Gay Leather Fetish, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, giant cocks, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Humor, Jack Halberstam, Kake, leather, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Pornography, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, soldiers, Sucking Cock is a Great Way to Spend a Friday Night, The Advocate, The Complete Kake Comics, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Well of Loneliness, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, Touko Laaksonen, uniforms, Working Class Men
A man goes into a bathroom to take a piss. Another man walks up, whips it out, and starts to pee. The men look at each other’s cocks, smile, and start to fool around. In the middle of their fun another man walks in and joins in, the next man who walks in is a sailor, this is followed by a young student, then a black man in a suit, and finally a biker dressed in rough denim and a sleeveless leather vest. The story ends with all the men fucking butt to butt to butt to butt to butt, and my reader gets it from there. Despite the graphic intensity of this image what is absolutely important about this story, which is told as a series of pictures, is that all the men who are having sex in this bathroom are smiling.
That may not seem terribly important, but for the time this story was drawn out it was not only controversial, it was unprecedented.
I don’t apologize for admitting that I’m a consumer of pornography. And to be perfectly honest, there isn’t anyone living in this contemporary period who should. Pornography has transcended its previous space in society which, until recently, was at the bottom of your dad’s sock drawer or filing cabinets. The days when little boys (and some girls, let’s be fair here) would steal their father’s Playboys and tremble as they turned pages discovering the awesome power of airbrushing has passed, and now generations of little boys (and girls, again, let’s be fair) now have an unlimited supply of images and videos of naked people fucking. Now there’s plenty of discourse about whether this new openness and ease of access to pornography is negatively affecting the population, but that’s for another essay.
I am a consumer of pornography, and while at times this is a fact that can be embarrassing there is one crucial fact that needs to be observed: I watch and consume gay porn because I’m queer and I want to remain faithful to my wife.
It’s taken quite a while to develop the kind of confidence to admit this, both out loud and to millions of anonymous strangers on the internet, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Since I came out I’ve begun to read more and more about bisexual identity, homosexual identity, and more specifically about sexual intimacy between men. My growing Queer library is almost completely dominated by men (phrasing) and one book in this ever-rising mountain of same-sex intimacy has become not only one of my favorite books, but also the most important: The Complete Kake Comics.
Kake, pronounced Kah-ke or cake, dealer’s choice, is the creation of a man by the name of Touko Laaksonen and has become since his early appearance in the 1950s and 60s, and icon of gay and bisexual male culture. With his leather jacket, slim moustache, and black leather cap Kake established a visual ideal from which gay men the world over identified and mimicked in their dress and overall behavior. If the reader has never observed or read any of the Kake comics I’ve provided some images within the body of this essay, some of which are obviously hyperbolic and purely pornographic. I
discovered Kake, and his creator Tom of Finland, completely by accident. I wish there was a dignified way of explaining this serendipity other than “I googled hot guys and look what came out” but, yeah, again, dignity, that’s a thing I don’t possess.
In my defense, however, after discovering the snippets of online content of Tom’s work I managed to track down a complete book on Amazon which I purchased and read. Studying the drawings was entertaining, not just for the obvious perverted reason, but because Tom of Finland manages to illustrate beautiful scenes of men fucking in a wide variety of contexts and locations and each page is beautiful for the perspective and attention to detail. Reading the book I enjoyed seeing these handsome men having fun and enjoying themselves and fucking with abandon because, unlike most of the pornography in the contemporary market, these men looked like they were actually having fun while they fucked. The sex wasn’t about berating your partner, calling him a bitch or a fag, and then relishing in any pain. The sex was just about enjoying yourself.
That, and there’s also lots of gargantuan cocks.
This is a long introduction however to my real focus which is a book that few people will ever actually read. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times by F. Valentine Hooven III is out of print and so it’s unlikely that outside of a few die-hard fans the book will ever be encountered by the casual reader of queer studies. It’s because the book is out of print that I felt compelled to write about it, but also because, as I noted before, Tom’s men are beautiful examples of what sex between men (and sex between people) should look like.
Hooven observes this as he examines Tom’s men:
The Third element of Tom’s art was its sense of humor. For whatever reason, sex and laughter have been linked throughout history. From Lysistrata to Tom Jones to Lolita, the preponderance of the great works of erotica have been comedies and even in the narrower field of hard-core pornography a large number of better works […] combine humor with their graphic depiction of sex. Tom followed
firmly in this tradition and consciously imbued his drawings with a general sense of light-hearted play. No heavy-handed drama, no sense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was permitted to intrude. Even when Tom’s men steal and fight and tie one another up, there is an overall feeling of “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!” (92-3).
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when this paragraph hits a familiar ear. Hooven I would argue accurately sums up the problem of much of the early pornographic writing, or even simply romantic writing, of the time because anyone who has ever read much early queer fiction recognizes that much of it is nothing but queer people mourning their very existence. This isn’t just my own observation, for even queer critics and historians have noted this tragedy in works that are now cannon of queer literature, the most obvious example being Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The novel is a romance that was published in 1928 and told the story of two lesbians, one of which assumed a kind of personality and physical make-up that many would refer to as butch. It’s a mode of being that assumes what some in culture would refer to as “masculine traits” but it retains the gender identification of female. The Well of Loneliness was made a bit of hubbub when it was first published, and in their book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam observes the gender matter in the novel, while observing this narrative trend:
Both novels [The Well of Loneliness & The Picture of Dorian Grey] depict homosexuality as congruent with some kind of gender inversion, and both depict the subterranean worlds of homosexuals as lonely drug dens filled with moral perversion. […] Some lesbian critics have begun the work of recuperating The Well of Loneliness by referencing it as a brave depiction of butch sexuality that replaces a model of lesbianism as a sin with medical and sociological models of the lesbian as invert and victim respectively. (98).
I could get into a long explanation as to why many of the early queer authors were forced to write about homosexual existence as a morbid affair, but the simplest explanation is the fact that homosexuality was still considered either a vice or else a mental disorder. Many homosexual people could face outright persecution, exile from loved ones, incarceration in mental hospitals where all manner of tragedies including lobotomy and electroshock could occur, and outright death sentences. Is it any wonder then that homosexual life, and sex, was often portrayed by writers as gloomy and miserable?
Taking this knowledge into account Tom of Finland’s work is simply incredible for its time. It’s not just that the art work is provocative and satisfies what is sometimes referred to as “hard-core pornography.” One crucial element makes his work as powerful and dynamic as it is and Hooven explains it to his reader.
But there was one aspect of Tom’s work above all the others that made it unforgettable. This element was the very one Tom worked the harde
st to add to his drawings. It was partly a compendium of the three qualities already mentioned: the sense of humor, the feeling of immediacy, and the more and more blatant homosexuality; but it was more than just a sum of these three. It could be as simple as a smile, yet it was one of the hardest things to draw deliberately; Tom managed to portray it. Namely, his men were unmistakably happy.
Happy homosexuals? That was new! (94).
If the reader is not familiar with the history of homosexual people, this sentence could almost be eyerolling in its sentiment. Current media being what it is, many people might immediately push back and wonder why this presentation was so unique. Hell, just a casual glance through the perverted landscape of Tumblr is enough to make anyone question why would the presentation of happy queer men be so shocking or important? My response to this, dear reader, is exactly the last line of Hooven’s analysis. These happy homosexuals were new.
Queer artists interested in presenting homosexual sex, both in terms of serious art as well as pornography owe their freedom in this capacity to Tom of Finland because the man’s work established a precedent where men could illustrate sex between men as something that was fun. And considering the presentation of sex that often occurs in art this is still something relevant. Watching sex scenes in movies and T.V. shows and even in pornography, most of it isn’t about fun. Sex is often just about scratching an itch, completing one’s sense of identity, showing it as part of a lifestyle, filling an emotional void, or at its worse, proving your virility. There really hasn’t been any presentation of sex as something fun as far as I can see apart from a few obscure artists and Tom of Finland.
In fact, to be honest, the last sex scene I watched on television that made it appear that sex was something fun was the sex between Gabe and Samantha White on the Netflix show Dear White People, or the masturbation scene with Lionel. Both of these scenes show people have sex or masturbating and at the end it’s clear that the act was about enjoying yourself and just having fun.
Looking at my own desire I think this is the reason why I keep returning to Tom of Finland over and over again, because while it is just about the itch of masturbation, there’s always another level in it for me. I want my desire to be something healthy, and I want the expression of it to be something fun. Even if I can’t have sex with another man, if I could I wouldn’t want the experience to be just about proving my virility or enjoying a lifestyle. There should be an honest joy in fucking because fucking is supposed to be fun.
It would be enough to observe that Hooven notes Tom’s approach to illustrating gay men as happy and content, but one other characteristic of his work is noted and catalogued in this biography. The reader will probably observe in the images of Tom’s work an attention to clothes, specifically the way men are dressed in jeans, leather, or military uniforms. I’ll admit freely this is also part of the appeal of these men for me. I’ve noted in several essays that growing up I felt less than fully confident in my masculinity, not out of misidentification with my gender, but because I didn’t feel like I was a “real man.” This still exists to some extent (it’s hard to feel any kind of macho when you spend most of your working hours in dress pants and bow-ties), but part of the fun of my bisexuality has been discovering what kind of man turns me on, and it’s almost always working class men.
These men embody the kind of masculine ethos that I lacked with their denim, callused hands, and their down-to-earth attitudes. And, if I can speak plainly, it’s mostly because they’re fucking hot as fuck.
This image of queer men however was something that, much like images of happy men, were unheard of. Queer men of the previous era were resigned to the “invert” or else the “fairy,” characters who were effeminate, flambouyant, and almost always self-loathing. It should be noted that effeminate queer men were and are legitimate personality types, and while not every queer man subscribes to that label no one should feel bad if they are a queen. Still for many men this gender presentation wasn’t true to their selves and so they found in Tom of Finland’s work a mode of dress that matched their perception of what masculinity was.
From 1957 on, Tom’s Work set up a series of powerfully masculine images for large numbers of gay men. In the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay pride, many of those men were no longer satisfied to merely lust after Tom’s men. In the seventies, San Francisco’s “Castro clone” look—Levi’s, boots, and work shirts—swept the gay scene, and gay men began to try to be Tom’s men. Even as the baby-boom gays aged during the eighties, they strove to emulate the Tom of Finland ideal. More and more of them began working out; super-butch haircuts and outfits and attitudes spread in popularity. So Tom’s work in the eighties presented an older but butcher male. In a way, this alteration was a reflection of changes in gay male society that were in turn partially a reflection of Tom’s work in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (164-5).
I’ve divulged a lot about myself in this essay, and probably revealed aspects of my personal life many people were probably happy never knowing, but after I finished Tom of Finland: His Life and Times I realized that I had to write about this book, not just because of what Tom’s work has meant for me and my personal sexual development, but for millions of men across the world. New generations of gay, bisexual, and queer young men will discover the man’s work and find in his images their own erotic truth. They’ll find images of men that satisfy their erotic interest, and some of them will be so inspired that they’ll pick up a pen and start drawing.
Pornography as a mode of art does not receive a great deal of credit or respect, and studying it as I have it’s pretty clear not much of it deserves credit. Pornography as an art is usually a back-scratcher: it’s designed to take care of an itch and then be laid aside and quickly forgotten. Growing up the way I did, I realize however that pornography was an intimate part of my sexual development and has been for millions of young people. As human beings progress forward into this Information age, online pornography is going to shape the sexual lives of young people and so the work of someone like Tom of Finland is not just an esoteric study, it’s something important to talk about.
If people are going to be exposed to pornography at young ages, it’s important then that they understand what healthy sex is. Looking at the landscape of pornography Tom of Finland’s work is a beautiful exception because it encourages people to be themselves and be happy. Rather than present sexuality as something violent or misogynistic, Tom’s work is just sexual play. It’s appeal to the imagination where human beings can just imagine fun situations that can be repeated over and over again by turning the page and seeing a new angle or a new position. It may be pornography, but at least it offers a healthy view into sexuality.
And, if I can make at least one more appeal, it offers a firm reminder that there’s something about a man in uniform.
All quotes taken from Tom of Finland: His Life and Times were provided from the First edition St. Martin’s Press hardback copy.
NOTE: This book is currently out of print, therefore tracking a copy down for yourself will be difficult…unless you follow the link below to amazon where you can buy a copy. Tom of Finland is just too important to be forgotten
And if the reader would be interested in finding The Complete Kake Comics, you can follow the link below:
My reader may have observed me using the word Queer in place of Gay for most of this essay. I’ve decided that whenever I write about same-sex intimacy between men that I will use queer in place of Gay, not out of a desire of homosexual erasure, but more as a way of leveling the playing field. I’m a bisexual man who prefers the term queer because my desire is pretty open ended. Plus, not knowing the sexual identity of my reader I feel queer provides more of a safety net. Writing out “queer man” is far simpler than “gay, bisexual, pansexual, man.”
If you hate me for this please remember that we’re all united in our love of cock. It is, to quote the great philosopher, just fantastic.
I also found, during research, a link to an article about a film recently made about the life of Tom of Finland. If the reader is interested simply follow the link below:
I also found an article published in The Advocate about the lasting importance of Tom of Finland:
"D'Artagnan Motherfucker!", "I like the way you die boy", Academic Book, Alexander Dumas, Broomhilda, Calvin Candie, Candy Land, D'Artagnan, dehumanization, Django Unchained, Dr. King Schultz, Fairy Tale, Film, film review, German Legend, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Historical Accuracy, history, Human Body, humanity, Humor, Jaimee Fox, Jane Tompkins, John Wayne, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mandingo Fighting, myth, mythology, N-Word, Nigger, Politics, Quentin Tarantino, race, Race relations, racial slurs, racism, Revenge Story, Satire, Siegfried, slavery, The Gaurdian, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns
I’m pretty sure John Wayne would hate Django Unchained, but only because Jaimee Fox looks fine-as-hell in those glasses. John Wayne could rock jeans and a bandanna…and that’s pretty much it. Sorry John.
The first image or memory I have of Django Unchained was seeing it opening day, which was Christmas. Apart from the snowstorm that damn near killed me as I drove home in my piss-for-shit 95 Ford Truck that had no heater at the time, I distinctly remember being the only person in the theater, apart from a family of African Americans to my right, who were laughing. I just remember that family laughing because most of the rest of the theater were white people who gave me nasty looks as I was walked out of the theater. I just couldn’t help it. There’s something about watching a group of white men complain about not being able to see through their hoods that’s just pathetic and hilarious.
And because I’m feeling indulgent, why not just quote the scene directly. Big Daddy a plantation owner, and part-time Colonel Sanders impersonator, has tracked Django and Dr. King Schultz with a posse of men to lynch the pair of them. Before they ride in to attack them they plan their attack and the conversation eventually takes place:
Big Daddy: [instructing raiding party] Now unless they start shooting first, nobody shoot ’em. That’s way too simple for these jokers. We’re gonna whoop that nigger lover to death! And I am personally gonna strip and clip that gaboon myself!
[puts on bag]
Big Daddy: Damn! I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing.
Unnamed Baghead: We ready or what?
Big Daddy: Naw, hold on, I’m fuckin’ with my eye holes.
Big Daddy: Oh. Oh, shit.
[takes off bag]
Big Daddy: Ah, I just made it worse.
Unnamed Baghead: Who made this goddamn shit?
Other Unnamed Baghead: Willard’s wife.
Willard: Well, make your own goddamn mask!
Big Daddy: Look. Nobody’s sayin’ they don’t appreciate what Jenny did.
Unnamed Baghead: Well, if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!
Other Unnamed Baghead: What about you, Robert? Can you see?
Robert: Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good, more or less. But when I start ridin’, the bag’s movin’ all over, and I – I’m ridin’ blind.
Bag Head #2: [rips bag] Shit. I just made mine worse. Anybody bring any extra bags?
Unnamed Baghead: No! Nobody brought an extra bag!
Unnamed Baghead: [raiding party is discussing their bags] Do we have to wear ’em when we ride?
Big Daddy: Oh, well shitfire! If you don’t wear ’em as you ride up, that just defeats the purpose!
Unnamed Baghead: Well, I can’t see in this fuckin’ thing! [takes bag off] I can’t breathe in this fuckin’ thing, and I can’t ride in this fuckin’ thing!
Willard: Well fuck all y’all! I’m going home! You know, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches! And all I can hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!
Big Daddy: Now look. Let’s not forget why we’re here. We gotta kill a nigger over that hill there! And we gotta make a lesson out of him!
Bag Head #2: Okay, I’m confused. Are the bags on or off?
Robert: I think… we all think the bag was a nice idea. But – not pointin’ any fingers – they coulda been done better. So, how ’bout, no bags this time – but next time, we do the bags right, and then we go full regalia.
Big Daddy: Wait a minute! I didn’t say ‘no bags’!
Bag Head #2: But nobody can see.
Big Daddy: So?
Bag Head #2: So, it’d be nice to see.
Big Daddy: Goddammit! This is a raid! I can’t see! You can’t see! So what? All that matters is can the fuckin’ horse see? That’s a raid!
These scene in particular drew the most laughs, and thinking on it later I wondered why the only people laughing was that family of black people and myself. But reflecting on it I suppose I understand. There’s a lot of dialogue which surrounds the film Django Unchained and a lot of it has to do with history.
If the reader has never seen Django Unchained it’s a film about a former slave who is rescued by a mysterious German dentists named Dr. King Schultz who is in fact not a dentist but a bounty hunter. Schultz saves Django because the man used to work on a plantation where three of his bounties used to work as well. The pair of them track the men down, kill them, escape the afore quoted inept posse, and during a conversation they decide to save Django’s wife who’s been sold, as they discover, to one of the largest plantation owners in Mississippi Calvin Candy. The two men draft an elaborate plan to rescue her, which ultimately fails, and costs Schultz his life. Escaping chains once again Django fights through and slaughters everyone in his path and finally saves his wife from Candyland.
When the film was released Quentin Tarantino suffered all manner of bad press for the free and prolific use of the word nigger in the film. Spike Lee made his usual appearance on the “Fuck Tarantino” program, and people on Facebook got into really nasty arguments about who’s allowed to use the word “nigger” and when and in what context and then someone said “reverse racism” and everybody who liked their brain left the room before that bullshit polluted their frontal lobes. And when the issue of Slavery and historical accuracy was thrown down, I like most people tuned out. Not because there wasn’t an argument to be made, but because I had already assured myself that this interpretation was the best reason to enjoy the film. I enjoy Tarantino movies period and will regularly defend the man’s work. But since I’ve seen the film around ten times since it came out I’ve realized more and more than this argument can only go so far. Tarantino movies tend to be hyperbolic in terms of violence and persona and sometimes plot structure, and within the film there is another, and I’d argue far more interesting, analysis that few people really discussed.
Django Unchained is a fairy tale about racism.
After Django and Schultz have defeated the Brittle Brothers and Big Daddy’s posse, the two men are having coffee and beans in a rocky valley, and while they talk Django mentions his wife Broomhilda and Schultz tells him the story of Siegfried:
Dr. King Schultz: Well, Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods. Anyways, Her father is really mad at her.
Django: What she do?
Dr. King Schultz: I can’t exactly remember. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
Django: Broomhilda’s on a mountain?
Dr. King Schultz: It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain. Unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
Django: Does a fella arise?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes, Django, as a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried.
Django: Does Siegfried save her?
Dr. King Schultz: [Nods] Quiet spectacularly so. He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire… because Broomhilda’s worth it.
Django: I know how he feel.
Watching the movie for the first time I failed to see how Tarantino was using this scene. I simply chocked it up to the man’s recent fascination with Christoph Waltz. Inglorious Basterds for me was a bit of a let-down the first time I watched it, but that was only because I was a Tarantino Junkie and had heard his original idea for the film. In place of a quad of black commandoes fighting across Europe I got a two-and-a-half-hour dialogue piece complete with film and lots of subtitles. Still, the redeeming element of the film was Waltz and his performance of Hans Landa. When Waltz returned in Django, it was just a continuation of the German aesthetic.
But like I said before there’s more to this passage because it ultimately reveals the creative goal of Django Unchained, which is to create an American fairy tale about slavery.
I think it’s a mistake to make the argument that Django is “historically accurate” as a film. There are numerous elements which satisfy historical reality (such as the headwear slaves were sometimes manacled with and bullshit eugenist views which I’ll talk about later), however people in the past typically didn’t bleed explosive corn syrup. The regular splash and sploosh of blood erupting in geyser like quality is Tarantino’s usual hyperbolic cinematic style and reveals his love of B-movies. But the main reason I reject this argument as the sole interpretation or defense of the film is that it limits the plot by history which often can be anti-climactic to narrative structure.
The reason Django becomes the character he does is because Tarantino is making
a Western, and as I’ve explored that genre before in numerous other essays, it’s important to understand how Westerns operate. I’ve said it once before, several times, but Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a wonderful book because it lays out the skeleton of the Western genre, how it operates, who established it, why it continues to appeal to audiences, and finally what is the creative goal of it.
In an early passage she explains the general outline of the western:
First of all, in Westerns (which are generally written by men), the main character is always a full-grown adult male, and either outdoors—on the prairie, on the main street—or in public places—the saloon, the sheriff’s office, the barber shop, the livery stable. The action concerns physical struggles between the hero and a rival or rivals, and culminates in a fight to the death with guns. In the course of these struggles the hero frequently forms a bond with another man—sometimes his rival, more often a comrade—a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the emotions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action—usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (38-9).
Now I can anticipate the reader’s reaction immediately: Django doesn’t exhibit any of these last qualities. In fact he doesn’t even die. This is a fair point, however if you observe the quote in it’s entirety you’ll see that Tarantino’s movie matches this skeleton because ultimately Django is a physical creature who isn’t defined by his introspection. Django Unchained seems to break this structure because he’s principally motivated to save his wife Broomhilda, however Tompkins notes that women typically receive this treatment in westerns when she notes:
Westerns either push women out of the picture completely or assign them roles in which they exist only to serve the needs of men (39-40).
Broomhilda never really manifests much of a personal character other than the fact that she’s Django’s wife. And while this certainly means Django Unchained fails the Bechdel test, it simply follows that it is in fact a Western. Django fights through the power structure and bodies of Candy Land in order to save his wife, literally spraying the white walls red with blood, until he’s overpowered and sent back, temporarily, into slavery. All this death only further Tompkins arguments about westerns:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and anti-feminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of male violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted (28).
But that just leads me back to my original argument.
Tarantino movie is remaking the genre of the western by blending it with the fairy-tale, myth, of Siegfried. Fairy-tales, much like myth, are stories that are purposefully hyperbolic in order to explain phenomena in the world. Zeus and Thor are non-scientific means explain lightning, and likewise the story of Siegfried is designed to explain the absurd state of being in love. One of the best examples of the fairy-tale is George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm which, when it first published, had the subtitle of “A Modern Fairy Tale.” In Animal Farm Orwell was using the structure of the fairy tale to tell a modern story about the terrors of Stalinism, but also of political corruption in general.
In Django Unchained, the fairy tale is exploring the history of violence and race, but instead of simply reminding the viewer about the travesties of slavery, the story is told so that instead of remaining victims of oppression black people overcome the violence by becoming the hero of a traditionally white genre.
Django becomes a mythic, or fairy-tale hero, charging into the fire that is the Candy Land plantation, pretending to be a black slaver, watching a slave named D’Artagnan being ripped apart my dogs, listening to Calvin Candie’s long lecture about the mental feebleness of blacks, killing dozens of field hands in Candy Land being captured, killing his captors, and returning to kill every last living member of Candy Land before blowing it up. While all of this is the usually Tarantinoesque hyperbole it follows point-by-point the struggles of Siegfried’s struggle.
The Dragon may be a slave owner with bad teeth who believes in eugenics and drinks rum from a coconut, but the hero faces it nonetheless because, as Dr. King Schultz noted before, Broomhilda’s worth it.
And then just a final note about one crucial element of the film. Consistently in Django Unchained, there are shots of white surfaces being sprayed with blood. First it’s the cotton of Big Daddy’s farm being sprayed with Ellis Brittle’s blood, Big Daddy’s white horse being sprayed with blood, and finally the white walls of Candy Lands interior being sprayed with blood of the various field hands who die trying to kill Django. As before I’ve heard arguments about how this is historic symbolism for how “white power” was “stained” by the blood of Africa Americans. I like this argument, and I stand by the idea that in the humanities you can make any argument you want as long as you support it with evidence. However, as I’ve noted before, Django Unchained is not historically accurate the way 12 Years a Slave was. The Tarantino factor has to be accounted for.
There is certainly a gratuitous element to it, but I’d argue that this constant staining imagery is just another way of building the “fairy-tale.” Often myths and fairy-tales pay attention to the body, blood, organs, etc. And so blood being such a precious fluid that it is, it’s being used to demonstrate what the hero is willing to perform and sacrifice in order to get back to his wife.
I didn’t get a chance to use it in the review, but this small exchange between Dr. King Schultz and Calvin Candie remains one of my favorite dialogue pieces simply because it made me realize a fact about an author I’ve loved all my life and never knew:
Calvin Candie: White cake?
Dr. King Schultz: I don’t go in for sweets, thank you.
Calvin Candie: Are you brooding ’bout me getting the best of ya, huh?
Dr. King Schultz: Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.
Calvin Candie: Come again?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas. He wrote “The Three Musketeers.” I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it?
Calvin Candie: You doubt he’d approve?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.
Calvin Candie: Soft hearted Frenchy?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas is black.
Maybe it’s indulgent on my part, or cathartic, but there’s something about watching Django burst into the house of the slave catcher’s shouting “D’Artagnan, motherfuckers!” And shooting them all.
Although I’ll also note there’s just something about watching a former slave whip the field hands that made him watch as they whipped his wife with their own whip before shooting them that is just…well it’s just fun to watch.
While I was polishing this essay I found a review from The Gaurdian of the film. Enjoy:
Finally I just wanted to leave the reader with some extra material. Here’s an interview with noted African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr and Quentin Tarantino shortly after Django Unchained was released. Enjoy:
Alec Baldwin, Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump's Skin, Barack Obama, Catch-22, Chris Jones, Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Donald Trump Alec Baldwin, Essay, fart jokes, George W. Bush, Humor, Joseph Heller, Literature, Lorne Michaels, Novel, Political Cartoon, Political Discourse, Political Satire, Politics, President Donald Trump, Presidential Satire, Satire, Saturday Night Live, SNL, television, The Atlantic, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmel, Yossarian
“Things could be much worse,” She cried.
“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.
–Catch-22, Joseph Heller
I am not a political writer, and the only real political identification I’m comfortable with is alcoholic. It’s an honest position, and it tends to get you far more friends than any partisan group or congregation. You buy some beer, or maybe some top-shelf booze, you bring your deck of Cards Against Humanity, and then you spend an evening googling bukkake and object permanence while your wife eventually beats you with that card about two midgets shitting into a bucket. I’m currently on the wait-list to add stoner to my political resume, but only because it seems a far more dignified title than republican or democrat.
This is why it irks me to write about President Trump, or really the version of Trump which seems to possess the only real power: Alec Baldwin’s version of Trump.
The last few decades have been a wonderful time for political satire largely because of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Both of these institutions have educated the American populace about what’s going on in government, but they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t bore, or cause nauseous indigestion. Dana Carvey’s George Herbert Walker Bush became iconic with the “it’s bad, it’s bad,” Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin virtually eradicated her political ethos, and Will Ferrel’s George W. Bush is still in effect the satirical portrait of the last century, that is until Alec Baldwin starred as Trump in a cold open of the Presidential debate.
But this essay is not so much just about Trump himself, it’s in fact about an essay which was recently published in The Atlantic: Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin. My regular reader will remember that I work at the Tyler Public Library, and part of my job is making the rounds and making sure the magazines are in order. Everyday someone has picked up seven copies of the Dallas Morning News and scattered them over a table before leaving, someone has left copies of The Economist in the areas reserved for Red Book or Seventeen, and of course on the other side of the library someone has left an enormous stack of magazines and decided not to return them to their original space. Working this gig has left me sympathetic for people who work in retail who have to deal with this crap every second of every day. While I was rearranging the magazines however I noticed that the new Atlantic was out and on the cover was Alec Baldwin, holding his Trump wig, and being dressed in the nameless orange hue make-up. I would have checked the magazine out right there (because you can check out magazines at the library) but unfortunately it still had the “new” blue sticker on it so I had to wait a month.
It should be noted I apparently forgot that magazines publish in print and online these days. Hindsight and all that. I read the article in under half and hour and I was left so impressed by it I knew that I had to write about it.
As I noted before, the entertainment industry has hit a golden stride in the last few decades with wonderful political satire that often feels more real than the actual people it’s mocking and the American people have been better off for it. These characters and impressions have allowed common people to laugh at their representatives, which is, I would argue, a healthy power dynamic. Chris Jones, the writer of the Atlantic article, briefly notes this:
Michaels has long vowed to keep the show politically agnostic. Whatever the leanings of its stars and hosts, Saturday Night Live is an agent of chaos, as victim-blind as a bomb. It can seem these days that the show is single-minded in its pursuit of the Trump administration, but SNL has always gone after presidents, beginning with Chevy Chase staging some remarkable pratfalls as Gerald Ford. A grinning Dan Aykroyd was the principal Jimmy Carter (“Inflation is our friend”); no fewer than seven performers took their shots at Ronald Reagan, Joe Piscopo most reliably; Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush (“Not gonna do it”) became synonymous with the man himself. Phil Hartman jogged into McDonald’s as Bill Clinton, and Darrell Hammond played him as a glad-handing hound. Will Ferrell made for the best George W. Bush, an innocent, distractible child. The show sometimes struggled with Obama—his single most memorable Saturday-night incarnation was arguably Dwayne Johnson’s “The Rock Obama”—but it’s hard to satirize competence.
Trump just makes comedy easy.
Before I dig into this I just had one comment concerning Obama. I don’t deny that I liked, and continue to like, former President Obama, however the last eight years was rather disappointing in terms of political satire because no one could ever make fun of the man. Key and Peele provided the only real substantial character parody, but the problem there was that their parody was based on the fact that Obama was competent and paid careful attention to being eloquent, patient, and intelligent only occasionally letting his inner self out. This absence of satire though created an issue because there were plenty of problems with the Obama administration, like there are in every administration.
Watching the first 100 days of the Trump administration however has been akin to watching…well, I’m a writer and I can’t even come up with an effective metaphor. I was going to come up with something clever and revolting like a rotting frog sucking it’s own festering erection while babies crawl out of it’s back and fall into the “drained swamp” already dead, but my lawyers informed me that this would probably somehow warrant copyright infringement. The only word that feels accurate is tiring. There’s been relentless displays of incompetence, and as Jones notes, this only makes it easy for comedians to parody the man and the people who work for him.
Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the Trump Presidency however has been its reaction to the public image, or perception of the administration as something corrupt, self-parodying, and completely inept. Every week Alec Baldwin’s performances seem to garner reaction from President Trump, and it’s telling when the man making fun of him notes how easy it would be to kill that image:
Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.
“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”
That’s it. That’s really all it would take. It may seem like a simplified analysis, but this action would in fact speak volumes, and at the start of Trump’s campaign for President this seemed the case of what would be. Trump appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and he did a guest spot on SNL alongside two actors portraying him. However, at some point the comedy stopped and President Trump no longer seemed to appreciate the parody, and not long after he began his public bemoaning of being mistreated by the modern media. And even after winning President Trump could do nothing but talk about the size of the crowd at his inauguration or complain that the press was mistreating him.
While I was reading Jones’s article, and thinking about the last few weeks this idea of a leader wanting nothing more than to be liked was eerily similar to Catch-22. Now my regular reader may remember, then again it’s been a while, that I read and reviewed Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 observing how the work is a wonderful satire about the abuse of authority. The novel is about a group of fighter pilots in World War II who are required to run “bombing runs” that are, by their nature, suicide missions. The pilots have to fly a certain number of missions before they’re released, and after that trying to explain is ridiculous and so I’ll let Heller’s characters try to explain it to the reader:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he has to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and he let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” He observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” (46)
The Catch of Catch-22 has lingered so efficiently in the culture that it’s an actual word now, and Heller’s novel has also lasted as one of the funniest books ever written along with being one of the most tragically accurate presentations of what happens when there is an abuse of authority. Soldiers are expected to follow the orders of their leaders without question, but this creates a conflict because not every leader is going to be intelligent, sly, or even sympathetic. Reading Catch-22 the reader is constantly reminded that the protagonist Yossarian is a sane man living in a world of bloody madness and that it could stop at any time if someone would just recognize that the commanders in power were morons and bullies.
My reader may object at this point, wondering what Heller’s novel about World War II fighter pilots has to do with the Trump Administration and Jones’s article. If my reader will allow me one more quote from the book hopefully my thesis will become clear.
Near the end of the novel Yossarian has rebelled against the leaders and commanders of the squadron, at one point sitting naked in a tree refusing to go on any more missions, and he is confronted by Colonels Korn and Cathcart, the bumbling commanding officers. The two men confront Yossarian about his rebellious impulses and offer him a way out of the war. In its own way, it is deceptively simple, but a close examination reveals it’s anything but:
“—and we have to send you home. Just do a few little things for us and—.”
“What sort of things?” Yossarian interrupted.
“Oh, tiny, insignificant things. Really, this is a very generous deal we’re making with you. We will issue orders returning you to the States—really, we will—and all you have to do in return is…”
“What? What must I do?”
Colonel Korn laughed curtly. “Like us.”
Yossarian blinked. “Like you?”
“That’s right,” said Colonel Korn, nodding, gratified immeasurably by Yossarian’s guileless surprise and bewilderment. “Like us. Join us. Be our pal. Say nice things about us here and back in the States. Become one of the boys. Now, that isn’t asking too much, is it?” (426).
I’ve avoided words like autocrat, dictatorship, and totalitarianism because the internet and media are already awash with voices screaming such words at the current administration, and while some of those voices are coming from rational and thinking people, this constant call is reducing the power of these words and the realities that they express. The problem with dictatorship is not that the citizens are living in a system where power is controlled in one central office, it’s that the populace at large can easily become prey to inept or ridiculous leaders who may demand adoration and affection. The platitude that “power corrupts absolutely” can be tiresome to hear, but human beings are narcissistic creatures by nature, and providing some of them opportunities where their ego can fester into something corrosive and brutish only adds to the problem. Dictators, autocrats, emperors, Kings, and even Presidents can allow this power complex to become something terrible, and at the heart of it all there is a desire to be liked.
I said, before the quote, that Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart’s questions was deceptively simple,
and that’s true. It’s an easy request at first to “like” somebody, but beneath comes a deeper implication. “Liking” an individual can sometimes blind you to their faults. I mentioned before that I “liked” and “still like” former President Obama, and at times that blinded me to problems in his administration that became clearer as time when on. Each reader has their own experience, that may or may not even be political. It might be a family member who’s abusive, a friend who’s an alcoholic, or a celebrity crush that blinds them to the fact that the person they adore is an egoist or an outright moron. The “simple request” to like the person who can bring you to harm is in fact a test of integrity.
Those in power will always desire citizenry beneath them to like them or to be sympathetic to their cause, because that approval allows them more power to accomplish their personal and political goals. It’s for this reason that “liking” someone in politics can often lead to ruin or disappointment because human beings are fallible and tend to fuck-up a lot.
I’ve done my best to avoid the outright politics because I don’t want this site to be a political site, but at 2000 words it’s best not to bullshit. So I’ll be clear:
I wrote this essay because watching the Trump administration I’ve become more and more concerned that the United States has elected an irrational egoist who can’t take a joke.
That’s probably why Jones’s article has the appeal that it does. Looking back to his article the character of Trump and his persecution complex only seems more and more clear:
So much of Trump’s popularity hinges on his image as a self-made miracle, a winner, a strong and successful man who is the best at everything and always gets his way. Baldwin has become our deflator in chief, a weekly pinprick in Trump’s balloon. Every time Trump tweets a wounded Sunday-morning response, every time Spicer laughs off McCarthy’s portrayal but then tries a little harder to bury his rage, every time Conway shows up on TV looking a little more challenged and broken, Baldwin can tell himself that SNL is not just making laughs but effecting change.
“Any administration wants the opposite of what Trump is getting now: They want to be saluted for what they’re doing,” he says. “They want to do their job and have people blow trumpets and worship them and throw confetti. They’re like movie stars in that way.” Trump lashes out at Hollywood, but it’s his dream to belong there. “I think that the comedy is effective—I believe that it’s absolutely, 100 percent effective—in that it’s achieving the opposite results,” Baldwin says.
Jones’s article is an important insight into the current zeitgeist, and as time goes on it may not seem as terribly relevant as a literary document. Nevertheless it felt important to bring attention to the essay because the cartoon character of President Trump, that Alec Baldwin brings to life week after week, is something timeless.
Throughout history human beings have mocked and parodied figures of power and influence (often through excellently timed fart jokes)* and it’s been the mark of great leaders who managed to laugh alongside them. Theodore Roosevelt was known to adore every cartoon parody of himself, even at their most biting. Former President George W. Bush opened up a presidential themed hour of SNL alongside Al Gore. And if nothing else, former President Obama invited Kegan Michael Key to play his “anger translator” Luther at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Politicians need to be laughed at so they, and the citizens they govern, don’t take themselves too seriously.
Humor and jokes bring people back to reality, and it’s rather tragic when reality is somehow only a fraction less goofy than the cartoon image.
On one final note I find it rather disappointing that few people have taken the time to make fun of President Trump using flatulence. Fart jokes have unlimited potential for reducing the ego, because it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when they’re farting. Put President Trump on a golden toilet eating a bean burrito, and I shall show you the stuff that comedy gods are made of.
Please find below this text every video of Alec Baldwin’s performance of President Trump to date. My reader may wonder why I’m including these. The best answer I can give, is fuck him that’s why.
Before I get accused of partisanship, it’s important to remember something. President Trump IS the President, and Democrats are partly to blame for that. There’s been plenty said about the results of the election, but what is important to remember is that Democrats consistently screwed themselves by fucking with the Bernie Sanders campaign which was drawing mass appeal from young voters, veteran’s groups, Black Lives Matter organizations, and white working class voters, the last group who would eventually go to Trump. They are also to blame for the fact that they allowed themselves to get cocky and smug during the campaign which only instilled in them the idea that they had already won which allowed the Trump Campaign to move through rural areas which won them the election.
Democrats fucked themselves, hard.
I just wanted to make sure my reader, who may be a self-righteous liberal or conservative, knew exactly where I stand before they share my article on Facebook or twitter.
My political position remains firm by the conviction: fuck democrats, fuck republicans, fuck liberals, and fuck conservatives. And just to be safe fuck libertarians too.
All quotes from Catch-22 came from the Simon & Schuster paperback edition. All quotes from Alec Baldwin Gets Under Donald Trump’s Skin came from The Atlantic.
If the reader would be interested in reading the article for themselves I’ve included a link below that they can follow to it. Enjoy: