Torah: A People Finds a God (and Vice-Versa)

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Reading the Bible this fall, from Genesis forward, I finally appreciate its meaning as a chronicle of a people living in relation to God, a people living in history.

Genesis is a kind of prologue. There isn’t a people yet. It is all about projecting back to account for Israel and the other nations. Cain kills his brother and his descendants will bear the mark of Cain through the ages. What this mark is is not clearly stated, so the notion has lent itself to abuse through the ages: an excuse to persecute the Other. Esau sells his birthright, Ham “sees his father’s nakedness,” Lot is guilty by association with the depravity of Sodom, Ishmael is born of Sarah’s (Serai’s) maidservant, Hagar. All these and their descendants are more or less cast out. They no longer belong to the people of Israel. They become Egyptians, Canaanites, what-have-you. The rest of the innumerable peoples of the world are accounted for in the very brief story of Babel and the many tongues whose origin it explains.

Genesis is a book with some of the most memorable and retold stories in the Bible: Eden and the Fall, Noah’s flood, Abraham and Isaac, and, of course, Joseph. God is very active, if not quite ever-present. He speaks to Adam and Eve, makes a covenant with Abraham, wrestles with Jacob, and so on. (The story of Jacob wrestling “a Man” who turns out to be God and who sets his hip socket out of joint, is nigh on inscrutable. The skinny: God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, “Wrestles-with-God,” and the rest is history.)

But the god of Genesis is not so sympathetic to anyone with a modern disposition. He is too righteous, proud, unbending. A little fatherly advice less cryptically given might have avoided all that trouble in Eden. Already in chapter 6, God is so disgusted with his creation he determines to destroy it all, “both man and beast,” save for Noah, his family, and a pair, male and female, of each of said beasts. (Genesis 6:7) Though He vows never again to “curse the ground for man’s sake,” he can’t restrain himself from destroying Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquity eleven books later. (Genesis 8:21)

God shows a sadistic streak, too, when he asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son on a stone tablet. The last-minute reprieve hardly makes up for the psychological abuse:

And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” [Genesis 22:12]

Abraham’s relationship with God is to be built on fear? If Abraham didn’t fear before, he certainly does now–and the rest of us do, too.

Even submissive Abraham chides his Lord for vengefulness–and gives him a lesson on accounting, too: “Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it?” (Genesis 18:24) What about five less than fifty? Or five less than that? Continuing his mathematical rhetoric, Abraham convinces God, who agrees not to “destroy it for the sake of ten.” (Genesis 18:32)

God is not always the main focus in Genesis. Much of the text regards earthly matters. What are we to make of Abraham twice denying his wife to save his own skin? “You are a woman of beautiful countenance,” he tells Serai as they enter Egypt: “Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” (Genesis 12:11-12) The story repeats itself eight chapters later when husband and  wife travel into Abimelech’s kingdom (Genesis 20:1-12) The repetition suggests significance, but what it is, I cannot discern. Later, famine strikes the land. Isaac digs wells and fights over wells until there is but one that stands uncontested at Rehoboth. In another sequence, Jacob marries Rachel, but also her sister Leah, and his father-in-law Laban tricks him into impregnating Leah, but Rachel is barren anyway, so he also lies with two maidservants until Rachel finally succeeds in giving Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, bringing his total to a numerically significant twelve, plus one daughter, Dinah. Throughout, Laban treats Jacob less than fairly, and Jacob retaliates in kind: a family feud.  Fertility and lineage are hardly the only issues plaguing this Biblical family. Theological elements are merely intimated in these stories; they are primarily anthropological.

Joseph takes up the most space of any of the Genesis stories, and his is a good one. In its denouement we get the strongest statement yet of the mysteries of the workings of God. Joseph tells his brothers, “It was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7) In essence: Don’t feel guilty about putting my in the  pit and selling me into slavery. If you hadn’t been such shits, we  would all be back in Canaan, starving, and I wouldn’t be such a big shot.  Later, he makes the point more broadly, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:19) Who can call the brothers’ actions evil when they led to a higher good, the creation of a people chosen by God?

Joseph’s words are of a piece with Shirley Temple Wong’s epiphany in Bette Bao Lord’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. After getting two black eyes while making a best friend in the bargain, Shirley understands the moral of her grandfather’s tale of Wispy Whiskers: “Things are not what they seem. Good can be bad. Bad can be good. Sadness can be happiness. Joy, sorrow.” ( Lord 1984) Personally, I prefer the Chinese philosophical narrative to the theistic Biblical one. It avoids the teleological emphasis of the latter. Where Genesis 37-50 applies to a single people; Wispy Wiskers speaks to all of us.

For readers of the Bible, Joseph’s initial adversity is understood as leading to ultimate triumph, not just for him but for an entire people. The stage is set for the watershed event that will bind Israel and God throughout history. Joseph has brought Israel–and the descendants of Jacob/Israel–to Egypt, and he has made them favored by Pharaoh. But what of Pharaoh’s descendants? Will they hold Israel in the same esteem?

End of prologue.

 

Exodus is the story of the birth of a people, born of trauma–first, living under Pharaoh’s yoke, but also of a narrow escape and survival, with God’s help, for years in “the wilderness.”

The story picks up long after Joseph, when the current Pharaoh has forgotten contributions of the Hebrew Dream-Teller. We can see the seeds of antisemitism already sown more than three thousand years ago:

And [Pharaoh] said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” [Exodus 1:9-10]

Exodus tells of Moses in the bullrushes, the Hebrews suffering under the slave drivers, and the Ten Plagues. The tenth is set up to be the most dastardly of all: the death of all first-born sons. But, if you were the first born and still alive after watching the rest of your family fall to bloody waters, frogs, plagues, locusts, etc., wouldn’t you rather be dead in any case? For the rest, wouldn’t you already be numb to tragedy. Literarily, the ten repetitions of plague try patience and stretch credulity beyond the breaking point. Still, the Angel of Death passing over the homes of the children of Israel makes for dramatic reading, and has been enshrined in the Passover ritual ever since.

God helps Moses help Israel every step in their flight: parting the waters (Moses separates his arms), bitter waters made sweet (Moses throws a log in the pool), manna from heaven (God shows the grousing Israelites who is boss), drawing water from a rock (Moses strikes it with his staff), defeating the Amelikites (Moses holds a rock in the air above his head).

The struggle for survival notwithstanding, the trial-worn Israelites somehow meet God’s specifications for building the sanctuary, tabernacle, and ark after Moses has descended Sinai (twice) with the tablets. “Then Moses called…every gifted artisan in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, everyone whose heart was stirred, to come and do the work.” (Exodus 36:2) Work they do, crafting each devotional object of gold and acacia wood…and yet more gold. Silver, bronze, and woven linens of blue, purple, and scarlet supplement the ornamentation. Unmentioned behind all this industry is the artisanal infrastructure that would have been required. Whence the mining? Whence the plundering from other peoples? Whence the furnaces and the crafting tools? Whence, for that matter, the craftsmanship, the artisanal skills? Weren’t they mere laborers under Pharaoh? If Genesis is history, it leaves wide gaps and large questions in the account.

 

Leviticus enumerates the laws. Most famously–or infamously– are the “Foods Permitted and Forbidden”: “Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you. …” (Leviticus 11:3-4) Compare this with Ian Frazier’s “Lamentations of the Father” from 1997: “Of the juices and other beverages, yes, even of those in sippy-cups, you may drink, but not in the living room, neither may you carry such therein.” Think of all the humor we would be denied without these hyper-specific proscriptions of Leviticus.

In the sexual realm, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality are all clearly “an abomination.” Then, in chapter 19, the “laws” become more appealingly modern, less didactically arcane:

“‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
“‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.
“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
“‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
“‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.'” [Leviticus 19:13-18]

Much of the rest–the offerings, the rituals–is fodder only for today’s Orthodox Jews. Except that tidbit about the year of Jubilee in chapter 25:

That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat its produce from the field. [Leviticus 25:11-12]

This, by contrast, is fodder for today’s left-leaning economists and activists who would see in these verses a way through our current debt crisis (as well as the one that will emerge fifty yearshence). David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is the most comprehensive argument for reconsidering the issue more along the lines of this Biblical passage.

 

Numbers begins appropriately enough with a census, tribe by tribe. The Reubenites come in at a respectably specific 46,500. There are eleven more tribes to go. These Israelites are significantly more populous than today’s city of Cincinnati. Do they live together? In a city? Obviously not. In what sense do they live as a people worshiping in God’s sanctuary? In what sense do they live “in the wilderness” with such a population?

Such questions are elided. The narrative is more concerned with a larger theme: the ingratitude and unfaithfulness of the children of Israel. It is almost comical how often and repeatedly the children of Israel backslide, deny their own God:

And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” [Numbers 14:2-3]

How does God react to all this grousing? He is both vengeful and forgiving; hard-ass and softie. He sends the people quail meat to sate their hunger…followed by a plague to teach them a lesson. Either way, he makes his power manifest, while demanding their devotion. Israel is an anti-hero in this book, hardly worthy of God’s attention, and yet he can’t help but give it to them. For all his bluster, God is a pushover.

But not with Moses at the end of the book. He will not retract His punishment for Moses’ transgression at Meribah, his alleged lack of faith. God told him to speak to the rock, and it would provide the water the people needed. Moses struck it with his staff, instead. We don’t really know why. The text doesn’t tell us his thought process. We do know this: In Exodus, faced with a similar threat of dehydration, a rock, and God’s guidance, Moses struck the rock to release its liquid. God didn’t object then. Why the difference? Ostensibly, it was Moses’ lack of faith, his disobedience. But God’s justice seems uncomfortably arbitrary.

On the other hand, the authors of Numbers knew how to squeeze all the drama they could out of their narrative. Moses has delivered his people out of Egypt, led them through forty years of trials in the wilderness, reassured naysayers, put down potential rebellions, defeated enemies, seen the Promised Land from atop Mount Pisgah, only to be denied entrance himself. What could be more dramatic? It also allows Moses to make a grand sermon in the last book of his five books.

 

Deuteronomy is also review of the previous books. It is a good synopsis–a kind of Cliff’s Notes–for slow learners like me, those who had trouble keeping all those names and places straight.

 

 

What do we take away from the first five books of the Bible, the Books of Moses, the Torah. First, and most obviously, that God–the idea of a people’s God–is a powerful force in history. Without God these people would be unnamed, unknown, unaffiliated pastorals, eking out a living. History would not care a fig-leaf for them, if they had not their relationship to God as recorded in this book. Even before the book, the stories gave these people a narrative, the narrative gave them meaning, meaning would give them power.

Does Israel deserve their God? The Torah avoids taking a stance.  The people have God. And God has a people. They are in this thing called history together. For the long haul.

 

“New King James Version.” Bible, https://www.biblegateway.com/, Accessed November 2022.

The Genius of Buster Keaton

The Three Keatons

Buster Keaton was only twenty-two years-old but already a seventeen-year veteran of the stage when he walked out on the family vaudeville act. What had begun as knockabout comedy with father, Joe, throwing son, Buster, around the stage had become a few-holds-barred onstage battle between an increasingly angry-drunk father and full-grown, conflicted son. Buster had lost the joy of performing, but he had no idea how to extricate himself from the situation. Enter Myra, the third, saxophone-playing member of The Three Keatons, Buster’s mother, and Joe’s at-wit’s-end wife. She grabbed Buster, boarded a train, and left Joe at a Los Angeles stage door without so much as a goodbye. Myra went to Michigan to live with family. Buster continued on to New York to try his luck as a solo act.

Years later, his memory tinged with nostalgia, Buster recalled only the good years performing with his father: “But sweet Jesus, our act! What a beautiful thing it had been. That beautiful timing we had–beautiful to see, beautiful to do. The sound of the laughs, solid, right where you knew they would be…but look what happened, standing up and bopping each other like a cheap film. It couldn’t last that way.” [Stevens 59]

It couldn’t last that way. Nothing gold can stay.

Joe Keaton didn’t have to become an angry drunk, but their run as The Three Keatons would have ended eventually, right? How many years could audiences warm to such naked violence? In what new direction were they prepared to take their act? Vaudeville itself was fast becoming moribund.

After vaudeville, after abandoning his pa, Buster Keaton “cast his lot with the pictures,” as he said. His second act in show business, both behind and in front of the camera, was even more celebrated than his first, yet it too “couldn’t last.” It, too, ended abruptly, unhappily, and after about the same number of years.

“The Butcher Boy”

***

In the standard telling, it was chance that led Buster to Roscoe Arbuckle’s East 48th Street studio in the spring of 1917. On the other hand, everything in Buster’s life seemed to lead to that moment. Everything in the entertainment industry was undoubtedly tilting toward the movies. On the fateful April day, Roscoe was shooting scenes for his latest two-reeler, The Butcher Boy. He put Buster in overalls and placed him in front of the camera–then sent him sprawling to the floor with a sack of flour to the face. After the shoot, Roscoe showed him how to take apart the camera and examine how it worked.

Buster was hooked.

He said later that he was smitten with the movies from the start, “with the cameras, with the rushes, the action, the slam-bang–with all of it.” [Curtis 90] He ripped up the stage contract he had just signed (taking a two hundred dollar a week pay cut, or $250 if you count what he had been making as part of the Three Keatons) and joined Roscoe’s team. Within a few months, Buster became Roscoe’s de facto assistant. A few years later, when Roscoe was hired to make feature films (at a million dollars a year), he left Buster in charge of what became Buster Keaton Studio. Over the next seven years, the former vaudevillian would direct and act in eighteen comedy shorts (two-reelers) and ten features (five to seven reels). “My god,” Buster said many years later, “when we made pictures, we ate, slept, and dreamed them.” [Sweeney 161]

Buster Keaton Studio

By 1920, movie-making was entering its adolescence. The make-it-up-as-you-go style was giving  way to institutionalized predictability. Once skeptical audiences were becoming greedy for ever more celluloid entertainment. Into this environment, Buster Keaton, not much older than an adolescent himself, kept Hollywood’s youthful spirit alive. He and the team he assembled worked hard and played hard. Under pressure to crank out a new comedy short every six weeks, each one filled with upward of a hundred gags, they found ways to keep the work light-hearted and fun. Buster played gags of screen almost as much as he did on. He made everyone–actors, productions staff, cameramen–fell part of a team. Said Clyde Bruckman, one of his writers, “Buster was a guy you worked with–not for. …With Bus you belonged.” [Stevens 202]

For an entertainer raised on live performance, nothing mattered to Buster as much as keeping the performance fresh. He accomplished that by something he called “un-rehearsing.” If the cues started to be picked up “too sharp” and the flow became too “mechanical,” Buster knew it was time to un-rehearse: “We generally did that by going out and playing a coupla innings of baseball or somethin’. Come back in and someone’d say, ‘Now what did I do then?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. Do what you think best and then go ahead and shoot.’ That’s un-rehearsing a scene.” [Curtis 157]

Scripts were loose agglomerations of ideas, works constantly in progress, the product of a gaggle of gagmen, more suggestive than directive. The story might be headed in one directions “as written,” but take a sharp turn in another as a result of events in the filming. “That’s the interesting thing about comedies,” Buster said. “You can never tell how they are going to turn out.” [Curtis 331]

“The Three Ages”

This make-it-up-as-you-go style could take some getting used to for someone new to the team. Three Ages leading lady Margaret Leahy described how they had planned a dramatic scene in advance. Keaton would walk out  the door, turn and wave goodbye, while Leahy would look away, indignant. As it happened, Buster changed his mind in the middle of filming. Instead of leaving, he turned back, threw his hat on the floor, took Margaret in his arms, and gave her a big kiss. She had no need to act indignant then! Released from his embrace, she took up a vase from the table and smashed it on the floor. “The director shouted: ‘Good girl–hold it–hold it. Get out, Buster, quick….” Nothing could have been more believable to the audience than her exasperation at that moment.  [Curtis 226]

For all his improvising and un-rehearsing, Buster was actually a perfectionist and —–ly exacting in his expectations. He would retake scenes as many times as it took to get them right. By his account, he kept only twenty percent of the film he shot in the final picture. [Curtis 156] In one scene in Three Ages, in which a caveman hurls a papier-mache boulder at Buster who bats it back to bean the caveman on the head, Buster insisted it be done with one camera in one take: no trickery. It took seventy-six takes to capture the one scene to his satisfaction. [Curtis 227] Several years later, in The General, he filmed a night scene under rain and wind machines, six hours a night for three weeks until they finally got it right. His leading lady, Marion Mack, recalled how “each night we got soaked to the skin. It’s a wonder we didn’t catch pneumonia.” [305]

“My Wife’s Relations”

Buster took a beating performing the very physical comedy in his films. Cutaways, he felt, would undermine the magic of his storytelling. Whether it was riding a log down a raging river (Our Hospitality), swinging from torn awnings to descend from a third story window (My Wife’s Relations), or, most hair-raising of all, having an entire house’s façade crash around him (Steamboat Bill, Jr.), Buster performed his own stunts. (Except the scene that involved pole vaulting  into a second story window, a feat that would have required weeks of training.) Buster had years of experience taking a beating on the vaudeville stage. He knew better than anyone how to take a fall. Yet, so hazardous was his brand of comedy that he suffered many scrapes, bruises, and even broken bones.

Buster “loved the process of making films, the mechanics, and the problem-solving.” [Curtis 169] By 1924, the complexity of his films was demanding much problem-solving, indeed. That year he built a story for The Navigator around a 220-pound diver’s suit and a 370-foot ocean liner he and his team had rented. The next year, he ran a couple hundred head of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles for the climactic scenes of Go West. For The General in 1926, he had a Civil War-era railroad bridge constructed just so he could film it being blown up as a locomotive crossed over. (At $40,000 it was the most expensive scene shot to date.)

***

Buster embraced the technology of modern cinema, and he did much to advance the technical art of filmmaking. Yet, his personal style of leadership was becoming outdated. Hollywood was institutionalizing, systematizing, consolidating, and Buster had been too focused on his own niche to notice the seachange. So, he was taken by surprise when his boss and benefactor, Joe Schenk (pronounced /skenk/), informed him that Buster Keaton Studio would be dismantled, and Buster’s contract was being sold to the newly formed behemoth of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At M-G-M, Joe’s brother Nick offered him a significant pay rise, three thousand dollars a week, but could not guarantee him artistic control. The days of the Buster Keaton method of movie making were over.

“The Cameraman”

Buster called the move to M-G-M the worst decision of his life. Indeed, both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Hollywood’s other comedic stars, had warned him against the move. Unlike them, he didn’t own his own studio; he had no obvious way to hold on to his independence. The money at M-G-M was attractive; the security it promised was appealing. But, in the end, Buster made the move to M-G-M mostly for lack of a better option. He trusted that Joe Schenk knew best in sending him to work for his brother. Unfortunately, Nick lived up to his nickname, “Skunk.”

Buster unwittingly ruffled feathers in his new studio. His first director resented his knowledgable input. Company executives decried his improvisational style: “How can we budget the picture if you don’t follow the script?” [Curtis 356] Buster didn’t realize it at first, but M-G-M was stripping him of his identity as a filmmaker and reducing him to a mere actor. Even so, on his first film there, his directorial input was not insignificant. Due to his influence, the final version of The Cameraman included a whopping three hundred and ninety-five added (unscripted) scenes, including some of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Buster would never again make a picture as genuinely funny. So many executives and writers were pumping him with ideas, he said, he began to question his own abilities. Worse, the joy of artistic creation drain away. [Keaton 208] This was a new experience for the thirty-three-year-old who had known nothing but success and a steadily rising star for twenty-eight years. Unequipped by temperament to deal with this adversity, Buster turned his anger inward. He turned bitter. Like his father before him, he turned to the bottle.

MGM

It should be noted that Buster was not a failure in standard, objective terms. At M-G-M, he made more money, personally, than he ever had. His movies–talkies, no longer silent–made more money for M-G-M than his silents had for Joe Schenk. (The entirely forgettable Doughboys made a profit of $160,000, several times more than The General. [Curtis 401]) Neither money nor fame could buy happiness in this case. As James Curtis explains in perhaps the central sentence of his entire book, “Keaton needed to work for reasons entirely apart from the matter of income–the filmmaking for him had become as necessary as breathing and that he couldn’t imagine life without it.” [Curtis 345]

***

It is tempting to blame the studio system for Buster’s demise, to make him out as a victim of America’s burgeoning corporatism. The accusation is not false. Neither is it fully explanatory. Buster had spent almost thirty years working in unfettered artistic independence: in the family vaudeville business, alongside the collaborative Roscoe Arbuckle, and under the hands-off guardianship of Joe Schenk. This left him vulnerable to a rude awakening when confronted with the rapid changes of 1920s America. Buster’s near-tragic downfall was in many ways just a mid-life crisis (thirty-five for him being fifty for the rest of us), albeit a more extreme and public one than the rest of ours. The difficulty Buster and the rest of us face is living in history, where life presents us with an ever-shifting target: Just when we think we have it figured out, the world has changed–and, we realize, we, ourselves, have changed, too.

For Buster, when the world changed beyond what he was prepared to cope with, it nearly ended tragically. But he survived his descent into alcoholism just as his father had before him. (Where Joe had used religion to pull himself out, Buster relied on will power and, eventually, the support of a truly loving third wife.) His third act in show business, his longest and least intense, gave him new satisfactions. Though he fell off the wagon a few times, Buster Keaton found real happiness in the final decades of his life.

“The Twilight Zone”

It is tempting, too, to ask “what if.” What if Buster Keaton had had another twenty or thirty years as a filmmaker? How many more comic gems would we now have to enjoy? It is a temptation we should resist. Dana Stevens tells us of Chaplin’s own difficulties adapting to “modern times,” as it were. In the thirties, he made just two movies and neither used the sound technology that was already years old in its adoption.  One of those movies, Modern Times, and another one early in the forties, The Great Dictator, were praised but also criticized for their didacticism. His final movie, about a music hall comedian’s passage to irrelevance, was Chaplin’s naked professional lament. As Stevens puts it, “Limelight seems at once so confessional and so equivocatingly self-serving that it’s hard to get past its autobiographical elements and judge it purely as a work of art.” [Stevens 334] Meanwhile, Harold Lloyd made the transition to sound smoothly, but was out of the laugh business by 1938 (though he did act in one more film in 1947). For his part, Buster went on to appear in dozens of film cameos, commercials, and TV shows, from Ed Sullivan to The Twilight Zone. He mentored Lucille Ball and toured in European circuses.

Asking “what if” is pointless.

James Agee, “Life”

In 1949, twenty years after the advent of the talkies, Life magazine’s hard-living critic, James Agee wrote a paean to the comedies of his youth. These silent pictures were by then entering obscurity, moldering in studio vaults, unseen by anyone born after 1930. Agee’s article, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” reminded an older generation of a time of innocence they had all but forgotten; it sparked the imagination of a younger generation who yearned to know first-hand what they had missed. In the article Agee dubbed Buster The Great Stone Face, adding with poetic grandiosity “Keaton’s face ranked almost with Lincoln’s as an early American archetype; it was haunting, handsome, almost beautiful, yet it was irreducibly funny.” [Agee] It is hard to overstate the influence of Agee’s words on the reach of Keaton’s legacy into the twenty-first century.

Of three great silent comedians from this era, Keaton is held in the highest regard among the hipster set, domestically and around the world. In France, he is known affectionately as Malec, in Poland, Zbysco; Iceland, Glo-Glo, Spain, ——-. [Curtis 5] The stoic melancholy with which his onscreen character accepts life’s absurdity give his movies a modernist edge. Stevens asks us to compare Keaton with Scott Fitzgerald and Hart Crane: “Like them he was formally innovative, inclined to puncture social pretension, and given to making art that was, in a uniquely 1920s way, sardonic and romantic at once.” [Stevens 137] His movies were downright Keatonesque.

The Great Stone Face

Keaton himself would have had  none of this talk. The man who benefitted from but one day (or there about) of formal education understood nothing of modernism as an artistic movement, nor did he have any artistic intentions when he created his films. He aimed simply to entertain. When critic Robert Sherwood claimed his films (along with Chaplin’s and Lloyd’s) “approximate art,” Buster demurred. “I never realized that I was doing anything but trying to make people laugh….  I never took extravagant praise seriously because neither I, my director, nor my gag men were writers in any literary sense.” [Dardis]

In the end, it is hardly more apt to call Buster Keaton a comic genius than it is to call him a tragic victim of the studio system. Reading about the entirety of his life in Curtis and Stephens this summer left me with the impression most of all of Keaton’s humanity, that he was just a man.

He was born, it is true, with innate talents that were nurtured from the earliest age by hands-on (and by his father’s hand-upside-the-head) experience. He developed his own brand of deadpan physical comedy and went on to produce films of high originality, seven of which have been entered into the National Film Registry. But what really set, and sets, Keaton apart in my mind was his exceptional ability to find and maintain joy in his work. That work–in essence, creating ways to make people laugh–was of the most grueling, all-consuming kind. Yet, Keaton loved it, thrived on it. He continually strove for excellence yet never abandoned the playfulness on which his ingenuity was built. Passion and fulfillment are what we all (many of us) say we want in our careers. So few of us actually attain it.

It takes more than grit or smarts. It takes the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time (in history) and being able to take advantage of it. For seven inimitable years, Keaton found the sweet spot where he made hard work and hard play go hand in hand, not just for him but for his entire team. In my mind, that was Keaton’s true genius.

Sources:

Curtis, James. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.

Stevens, Dana. Camera Man: Buster  Keaton, The Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. New York: Atria Books, 2022.

Dardis, Tom. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. Brisbane, Australia: Limelight, 2004.

Keaton, Buster (with Charles Samuels). My Wonderful World of Slapstick. Lebanon, Indiana: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Sweeney, Kevin W. Buster Keaton: Interviews. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

Making History

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

History is not one thing, but two. It is the past, and it is the story we tell ourselves about the past. Hilary Mantel explains the distinction: “History is not the past–it is the method we’ve evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past…. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.” [287] How that method has evolved over the last three millennia is the subject of Richard Cohen’s book, Making History: The Storytellers who Shaped the Past.

In this wide-ranging (though of necessity not exhaustive) book we are told that Herodotus is the Father of History and also “the father of lies.” He earned Plutarch’s epithet for passing on fables even he didn’t believe were true. He couldn’t resist a good yarn, Cohen tells us.

Thucydides

Thucydides scorned his predecessor’s sensationalism but was not above putting words in speakers’ mouths. He justified the practice, saying, “I have therefore made the speakers express primarily what in my opinion was called for under the successive circumstances….” [44] More broadly, as Cohen puts it, Thucydides was “torn between what he wanted to believe and what he knew had taken place.” [47] He wrote his History to be faithful to the records (such as they were, which is another story). Yet he wanted his History to instruct his readers about the dangers democracies faced, as he perceived them. And why not?

Roman historian Polybius scorned both his Greek predecessors, writing, “It is not a historian’s business to startle his readers with sensational descriptions. [Take that, Herodotus!] Nor should he try as the tragic poets do, to represent speeches which might have been delivered (Take that, Thucydides!)…. It is his task first and foremost to record with fidelity what actually happened.” [59] Easier said than done. How can one record faithfully when, of necessity, one must leave stuff out?

These and other questions form the central themes of Cohen’s book.

***

Edward Gibbon

History “is something that needs to be rewritten in accordance with the changing reality of the present.” So said Nobukatsu Fujioka, Japanese history textbook “reformer.” [573] In one  way, the statement seems to represent a certain truth. Why else do historians continually rewrite the past if not to make it more relevant to modern readers? Yet Fujioka’s words contain hints of a more sinister motive: to whitewash Japan’s atrocities in WWII. Is history on one end of a continuum with propaganda on the other?

Sir Edward Gibbon may be the most renowned historian in the book. His Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire synthesized the Roman imperial past for European readers. Yet Gibbon, according to Cohen, wrote the history with an eye toward the lessons it could impart to the leaders of Britain’s own imperial project. Despite a slant that might be expected to date it, Gibbon’s work is still read and appreciated today. Having the slant, an interpretation, is what makes a work of history compelling in the first place–as long as it is based on thorough research and open-minded inquiry.

Niall Ferguson

What about the case of Niall Ferguson, the so-called enfant terrible of the Oxbridge historical establishment? His books–cranked out at a pace that can only be described as prodigious–seem aimed at defying orthodoxy, shooting down accepted interpretations. Devil’s advocate or not, Ferguson’s books make serious arguments based on…well, prodigious research. They stake a claim for truth. The final word on their subjects or not–and they can’t be–his books provoke thought, more research, and new analyses. More disinterested historians–“storytellers who shape our past”–have their place, but so, assuredly, do the contrarians and the revisionists. As historian Veronica Wedgewood averred, “The whole value of the study of history is for me its delightful undermining of certainty, its cumulative insistence of the differences of point of view…. ” [504, emphasis added]

***

Can history (the telling of the past) be objective? For professional historians, the answer is no. In Cohen’s telling, the more relevant questions are: Can historians maintain fairness to the historical record, an open mind when approaching evidence, and awareness of their own biases. Some, including many Marxist historians, are not even especially concerned to temper their bias. Leon Trotsky tried to write the history of events he participated in, a fact that would seem to be disqualifying. Yet he claimed be objective without pretending to be impartial. As Cohen has it, he distinguished between neutrality and objectivity, deeming the former a kind of milquetoast abdication of political responsibility. [364]

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm, a professional Marxist historian of the academy, was no less shy about embracing his partiality, while approaching sources no doubt more rigorously than the revolutionary. Hobsbawm had no difficulty admitting that his Marxist loyalties were bred in him by early experiences in Nazifying Germany. His later actions, he said, were “a tribal matter,” born of a need to “prove myself by succeeding as a known Communist, and in the  middle of the Cold War….” [381]

Other Marxist historians who make it into Cohen’s book are hardly mindless Hegelians, fitting data into a preconceived notion of history’s ultimate purpose. They are just as concerned as Leopold von Ranke‘s dictum to “tell how it really was,” [247] They have helped advance this project by expanding history’s scope (and depth) to include subject matter previously overlooked or ignored: peasants, working men and women, their living and work conditions, their mental and material world.

***

Marc Bloch

The expansion of the purview and methods of the historian is another theme in Cohen’s book.

In the twentieth century, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the journal, Annales d’histoire economique et social, or simply The Annales, and inadvertently a new historical school of the same name. Bloch, Febvre, and the their followers elevated material culture as a prime subject of historical inquiry. Fernand Braudel, in his study of The Mediterranean in the age of Phillip II, was among the first to consider longer sweeps of time, the longue durée, in which made geography and climate central factors of study. (Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari are hardly Annales school descendants, yet their work confirms the necessity of examining the longue durée.) Cohen avers that, in any case, the Annales, whose name refers to a specific type of historical source, might better have been called Total History. Everything is a possible subject of inquiry.

Individual historians have expanded history’s range, too. John Keegan’s The Face of Battle broke new ground in military history by focusing more on mechanics and technology of warfare than on generals and strategy. His overall approach helped readers better understand “what it felt like to be a soldier” in three different battles across five centuries. Women historians, since at least Mary Wollstonecraft, opened up women’s domains to historical study. Classical scholar Mary Beard has done this and more for ancient Rome, going so far as to examine laughter in ancient Rome.

***

Cohen does not examine the tilt toward quantitative history which emerged in the 1960s logically out of the Annales school, but he does give voice to historians who reacted against it, primarily Simon Schama. “The academy is under siege,” he lamented. Historians writing purely for each other was killing the vitality of the enterprise. They must also write accessible, narrative history that will actually be read. [643-644]

Alessandro Manzoni

The concern for readable history has been around since at least Herodotus. Even the chronicler of the longue durée, Fernand Braudel, described himself as ecrivain, not historien, according to Cohen. [338] Britain’s mid-twentieth century face of the historical profession, A.J.P. Taylor, described himself as a straight narrative historian: “I like telling stories. …No use writing history if you can’t make it as exciting as a good novel. Actually, it’s more exciting. …Better not write books at all, if they’re just going to gather dust on the shelves of a library.” [456]

Does historical fiction have a role to play in illuminating the past for modern readers? Cohen spends a chapter considering the question. Dozens of novelists receive mention, if not full discussion, including Sir Walter Scott, Alessandro Manzoni (I read and wrote a paper on his I promessi, The Betrothed, for, yes, a history class in college), Toni Morrison, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. These authors illuminate the past for a wide audience and, what’s more, create an interest in learning more. Yet, Cohen identifies the ways their narratives of necessity mislead, including by eliding inconvenient facts and playing loose with chronology.

Many novelists believed their art revealed truths nonfiction history could not. Cohen quotes Joseph Conrad at some length: “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on reality of forms and observations of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting–on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer the truth.” [265] Tolstoy likewise chose fiction (and free use of philosophy, too) for his telling of the Napoleonic invasion, Straight history, he said, would “force [him] to be governed by historical documents rather than the truth.” [271] Graham Greene was a correspondent in Indo-China, writing “history’s first draft,” in the common formulation which Cohen adopts. His dispatches were so heavily altered by layers of censorship and editing Greene could hardly recognize his reporting in the final product. (It was “so much fiction,” in Cohen’s words.) Greene switched to fiction, the better to report the truth of what he saw and experienced.

Harvard’s Jill Lepore makes a colorful and fitting analogy: “Historians and novelists are kin. But they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes.” [287] Hah!

***

Jill Lepore

Lepore’s definition of history as a “long and interesting argument, where evidence is everything and storytelling is everything else” is fitting, too, as a description for the historical enterprise. [287] Argument, evidence, narrative: the three legs of history’s stool.

Storytelling requires picking and choosing what persons and events, technologies and trends, etc. will be included, and which left out. There may not be a novelist’s story arc, but the historian does need to identify a beginning and end. The historian must imbue meaning in the story he tells. He cannot avoid taking a slant on events, interpreting their meaning, making an argument. He must be fair and balanced when he approaches the evidence, but he cannot avoid taking a stand on their significance. He cannot be neutral.

Patatrooper

But the story is built on a foundation of evidence. Pace Tolstoy, historical documents do not limit one’s access to truth; they enable it. Historians shape their story but only within the range that the documents allow. Imagination, as yet unmentioned in this post, is required to fill in gaps in the data and even to follow Ranke’s most fundamental dictum, “to tell what actually happened.” Today, historians and their readers want to know how it was and what it felt like.

Not all historians need be storytellers or grand synthesizers. There is room–nay, a necessity–for what French historian Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie calls the trufflers, researchers who hunt for hidden gems in the record. (Their opposites, paratroopers, descend into unknown territory to explore as far and wide as their resources allow.) [349] A truffler–and a quantitative historian–might not write a bestseller, may produce a work read by only colleagues in the academy. Yet, if his work adds to the understanding of what actually happened, it will find its way into the more widely read work of the synthesizing storyteller. That’s how history works.

Truffler

Historical truth will never be “objective” and it will always be slanted. But with a conscientious reliance on evidence and an adherence to standards of methodology, new histories will add to our understanding of past–with later histories, more or less convincingly, explaining how this or that emphasis was misleading and needs to be reconsidered. History is the story we tell ourselves about the past in response to previous versions of the tale. It is a continual process of retelling of events that already happened and do not change to a continual stream of readers who will never stay the same.

 

Cohen, Richard. Making History: The Storytellers who Shaped the  Past. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

Abortion: Integrity, Legitimacy, Morality

posted in: Politics | 0

Pro-life advocates are riding the crest of a wave. Their self-assurance is palpable, but their program, if we consider only J. D. Vance’s recent comments, is dubious and, frankly,  dangerous.

 

No abortion in the case of rape or incest, Vance says, because “two wrongs don’t make a right,” rape being the first, presumably; abortion the second. But many Ohioans believe forcing a grown woman (or, in many cases, a barely pubescent girl) to carry her victimizer’s child to term is the greater wrong.

 

REUTERS/Gaelen Morse

Vance equates abortion with convenience. Consider the low-income mother of four struggling to provide for the children she already has; the thirty-five-year-old married couple who never wanted children but whose birth control fails; the couple who desperately want a child but whose fetus has a rare genetic disorder that precludes a meaningful life if it even survives to breathe on its own; the teenager who, being a teenager, screws up (so to speak), and so on. Vance can call decisions to abort “convenience,” but it is not his judgment to make. Making such a judgment at the level of public policy is commonly known as tyranny.

 

Vance admonishes us to see children as “blessings to cherish.” Indeed, children (including embryos and fetuses), in their dependence, have a special moral claim over us adults. But children grow into adults, and when they do, they do not give up a right to respect, even care. Laws that force decisions onto adult women deny them moral autonomy. If we are to cherish children, we must also cherish–or, better, respect–the adults they become.

 

Vance pulls out a third shibboleth: the pro-life movement is the anti-slavery movement of our time. Yet, unlike the nineteenth century slaveholder, who claimed a right of property over another morally autonomous human being, a woman’s right of bodily integrity and moral autonomy legitimately conflicts with the rights of her embryo or fetus, which is the size somewhere between a grain of rice and a small chicken egg, and exists only because of her own sexual acts, in the first place, and the life-sustaining properties of her womb, in the second. Abortion is morally confounding; pretending otherwise, by imposing legally simplified “solutions,” is counterproductive.

 

The state laws I have read about recently are strikingly mean-spirited, punitive, and over-reaching. They have all the hallmarks of a power grab. The sponsor of Ohio House Bill 704, says Ohio must “recognize the personhood, and protect the constitutional rights, of all unborn human individuals from the moment of conception.” Yet, the Founders never considered the rights of the unborn in their constitutional discussions. House Bill 704 is plainly unconstitutional and would require an amendment.

 

Because I am not a Democratic officeholder or Planned Parenthood caseworker, I can admit the thought of abortion brings pangs of moral qualm. This supports, rather than negates, what I have said above. The essence of moral decision-making is the weighing of competing goods, knowing that you can never be sure if your actions will be the right ones, and living with the consequences.

 

If Roe was a judicial overreach in 1973, we should avoid making legislative overreach now that that decision has been overturned. Laws that a majority support engender civic trust, the converse also being true. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost did not inspire trust in the new abortion law when he backpedaled recently to the press:  “Ohio’s heartbeat law has a medical emergency exception broader than just the life of the mother. [The ten-year-old rape victim]…did not have to leave Ohio to find treatment.” Is this the case? Or does the law box us in by having been written too narrowly, too self-assuredly, too self-righteously?

 

The majority of Americans and, by a narrower margin, Ohioans favor abortion access with reasonable restrictions. J. D. Vance, and other Ohio politicians, should be less concerned with moral purity and more concerned with constitutional integrity, democratic legitimacy, and, yes, moral soundness.

Images: Wikipedia and ohioattorneygeneral.gov