06.06.03

"Up early. I went into one of those Korean produce stores and there were about 15 people in there, it was mobbed, and I listened to this guy rave about a pineapple for ten minutes and by the time he was through I was dying to get one, too.

"He was saying, 'I want it ripe and ready! Juicy! Luscious! Ready to eat, right off the bat!' And then I turned around and it was (Richard) Nixon. And one of his daughters was with him, but looking older - maybe Julie, I think. And he looked slightly pudgy, like a Dickens character, fat with a belly. And they had him sign for the bill. There were secret service with him. And the girl at the cash register said he was 'Number One Charge'."

- Andy Warhol, diary 06.05.82

 
 
 
 

THINGS I DO:

movieblog
mediablog
photographs
hometown
scam: a novel

"Gertrude Stein's War"
by Janet Malcolm
The New Yorker, 06.02.03 issue

Another article on Gertrude Stein means another overeager genuflection at the altar of this unaccountably persistent icon of the Lost Generation, the matriarch of the the unkillable school of aesthetic and intellectual obfuscation. Sure enough, Malcolm admits that her interest in Stein began fifty years ago, when she ran with "a group of pretentious young persons" who wrote "mannered letters to each other modelled on the mannered letter of famous literary homosexuals". Fascinating.

The title, though, hinted at something more interesting - "Gertrude Stein's War". I'll be frank - I'd read something called "Truman Capote's War" or "Marcel Marceau's War" or even "Stubby Kaye's War". Very simply, Malcolm wanted to know how a pair of Jewish lesbians managed to survive in Vichy France without being deported to a Nazi death camp. The story she unearths isn't surprising to anyone who knows a bit about Stein.

On the way to finding an answer, though, Malcolm anatomizes the relationship between Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and ends up describing a hell of co-dependence. Stein's greatest asset wasn't her literary talent, which I've always thought dubious, but an apparently bottomless charm, the gift of an independent income and the privileged status of youngest child in a wealthy family. Stein was what we now call a monster of self-esteem, certain of her own genius, and able to sell it as a fact to everyone she met.

One of those she convinced was Bernard Fa, a right-wing academic who became Stein and Toklas' protector during the war, from his position as Vichy's head of the Biblioteque Nationale. Fa was a classic example of the sort of conflicted character that ended up supporting fascist movements - a gay arch-conservative with a taste for avant-garde art, an anti-semite who risked his career to help two Jewish lesbians. After the war, after Stein's death, and before Toklas' conversion to Catholicism, Stein's "widow" helped Fa escape from jail, a repayment of her debt to a collaborator who, according to trial records, was directly responsible for the deaths of over five hundred French freemasons in the camps.

Toklas' ultimate embrace of the reactionary wing of Catholicism is proof of the old adage that there's no one more zealous than the convert, but it's Stein's reaction to the war, and the official anti-semitism that could have killed her that's even more interesting - and frightening. While Stein's art is assumed to come from a mostly apolitical aestheticism that, for most of her fans, presumes a gentle, humanist leftism, she supported Franco during the Spanish Civil War and, at Fa's urging, began a translation of Marshall Petain's speeches.

Going through her writings on the war, Malcolm is uneasy at the distant tone Stein takes, her careful avoidance of mentioning her Jewishness. Even at the end, it's obvious that Stein's sense of entitlement, her confidence that she's always be taken care of - by Toklas, Fa, and others - is barely pricked by an awareness that a great evil had taken place ("What had been happening to others" is Stein's oblique aside, which Malcolm repeats with amazement). Amazingly, though, Malcolm ends her article by imagining that Stein - "From the evidence of her chronic contrariness" - might have overcome this, along with Toklas' devotion to ignoring the unpleasant circumstances of their wartime life.

It seems like wishful thinking. Stein seems like just another intellectual whose real social sympathies are aristocratic, and reliant on the idea that, more than just a Toklas or a Fa, they need the whole machinery of a thriving class system to sustain them in the comfort levels they require. Stein, while far from the genius she presumed herself to be, understood that she stood a better chance of thriving under an authoritarian, even fascist, regime than the socialist one that opposed it. The only inconvenient fact was her Jewishness, but as long as there were Bernard Fas in the world, she could always manage. Am I alone in considering this despicable?


AT FIRST EVERYTHING SEEMS NORMAL, except when, say, your wife suddenly quits what's left of a residual smoking habit, and frankly why wouldn't you be happy about that? Then her diet changes - no sushi, or blue cheese, or alcohol, which is a bit of a drag sometimes, mostly for her. The famous cravings - a combination of pickles and ice cream was the overused joke, once, when you were a boy - aren't nearly as bizarre as you've heard. Judging by the quantity of old cheddar and whole grain bread that passes through the house, though, a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches are being consumed. You say nothing.

One day, you're crushing juniper berries for something you're cooking and she tells you to go easy since, apparently, they can induce miscarriages. You stop for a second, pestle in hand, and ask if you should toss them out. No, she says, just don't use too many of them. You don't remember the last time you used the little jar full of aromatic little blue dried berries, figure that they can't do much harm, and toss them into whatever it was you were cooking.

Okay, maybe that wasn't the most sensitive thing you've ever done, but the baby's still squirming away in there, months later, so you don't feel that bad about it, in retrospect. You monster.

IT TAKES A LONG TIME TO GRASP THE CONCEPT: a tiny human life, growing in your wife's abdomen. Of course, you can respect the idea, since its factual basis is well-established; it's been done before, by billions of people, and countless other non-marsupial mammals, so you assume they've ironed out most of the bugs, that there are professionals out there whose familiarity with the process will mitigate your own puzzled awe whenever you try to wrap your head around it all.

She gets bigger, starting with the belly, which then spreads to a bit of extra padding, a lush roundness that's attractive, sure, but hell on her wardrobe. A box of maternity clothes arrives from her best friend, and another from her mother, who'd been picking them up at discount outlets all over the South Shore. She outgrows some of them in short order, but at first she resists the massive pair of Gap overalls, shaking her head and saying that "every pregnant woman wears these things like a uniform". True enough, but at the end, they're practically all she wears, for reasons that should be obvious enough if you've ever been pregnant, or lived with a pregnant person.

It's a big baby. Last week, the day after it came to term, the midwife guessed that it was about nine pounds, with at least two more weeks to go before the due date. She was just under that - a long eight and a half pounds, according to her mother. The midwife would have liked a smaller baby, judging by her constant warnings about diet, but neither of you are small people. Still, you can't help but feel a bit guilty.

You were a twelve pound baby, most of it head. Your brother still talks about a favorite game he used to play with your sister; they'd prop you up in your crib and watch while you tipped over, pulled to the ground by the massive baby skull. No wonder your mother gave you up for adoption; I doubt if she wanted to see that head again, having had it pass through her like a placenta-greased melon.

WE KNOW - OR AT LEAST ARE TOLD by everyone, with some assumption of authority - that it's a big baby, but we still don't know if it's a boy or a girl. The size, according to conventional wisdom, suggests a boy, "or a very large girl", as the midwife said at this week's check-up. Until it became apparent that this monstrous baby was due any day, and that every unborn day only saw it grow yet further, not knowing if we were having a boy or a girl was our biggest worry.

A visit to Gap Kids is instructional: On one side, an explosion of pink and lemon yellow, wine-red velvet embroidered with puppydog faces and flowers, rubber boots and rain slickers and sou'wester hats in matching shades of cerise; on the other side, the same tired iteration of khakis, cargo pants, button-downs, golf, rugby, sweat and t-shirt, the casual friday and sporty weekend closet of a tiny vice-president of marketing.

Once, after a delirious twenty minutes in the sugar-rush atmosphere of the girls' section of the store, we end up in the (smaller) boys' counterpart, where I suddenly find a line of tiny flak jackets in olive drab, resplendent with pockets and epaulets. Suddenly, I find myself holding up one of the tiny outfits with the same cooing glee as my wife had just held up the pinafores and gingham sun dresses. If I had any assurance that we were having a boy, I'd have bought it on the spot, and confirmed the suspicions of too many of my friends and in-laws that I'm some kind of raging militarist.

Once, as she sat at the kitchen table giggling as she admired the ruffle-butt panties and lace-trimmed dresses in some unsolicited mail-order catalogue or eagerly-purchased issue of Martha Stewart Kids, I got her to admit that, in her mind's eye, she was having a girl, and dressing that putative but adorable little princess with every sweet little outfit she'd every seen. "What if it's a boy?" I asked.

Well, it'll make most of the clothes we've been sent, the quickly-outgrown cast-offs from our already-blessed friends that have arrived in bulging bags and huge boxes, mostly useless. I know that we'll be overjoyed with a happy, healthy, khaki-clad baby boy, but I know that, somewhere down in K.'s sleep-deprived heart, there will be a twinge of regret that he'll never be able to wear that wincingly cute poodle skirt embroidered with bookended scotty dogs her sister found at Goodwill.

Well, we could, but don't little boys have enough problems nowadays?

WE ARE TOLD, BY EVERY MAGAZINE and newspaper and bestselling tome, that boys are in dire straits these days. They are underperforming academically, and seem adrift socially, plunging themselves into the dubious comforts of videogames and sports trivia, doomed to minimum-wage manual work at their summer jobs while their sisters and girlfriends work retail in malls and tourist shops, finessing their already-superior social skills. They begin dating at the impatient prompting of their precocious female classmates, and get dumped just as peremptorily.

They stumble through their college years with hard-won passing grades and the furious embrace of the lad-mag demographic, a vaguely defensive celebration of strip-joints, esoteric action movies, consumer electronics, violent anime and imported beer that confirms their girlfriends' and sisters' worst suspicions. Even the old assurance that sexism and the old boys' network would land them a decent job is disappearing, and even if they manage to attract some superior specimen of woman, the chances that she'll outearn them is becoming more likely.

Which is fine - most of the men I know live with women who've made more than they do - but I wonder whether your average boy has the sort of memory, actual or learned, of sexual inequality that made all this radical change possible. A hundred years of the struggle for gender equality seems, at least in the west, very near accomplishing its goal, but by the time my generation of men were passing through the social, sexual and political gauntlet that was school and young adulthood, a shamefaced submissiveness, a self-efacing stance summed up by the Sensitive New Age Guy (SNAG for short) was considered the default mode. The retro lout wholesaled by the lad's mags is only the inevitable reaction to this hopeless wimp, but am I the only one who thinks that this gadget- and mammary-obsessed oaf is trying just a little too hard?

With abundant evidence of the superior earning power, social aplomb and educational edge that girls have assumed, why would any boy see anything but his own lesser status and start identifying himself as a victim, using the abundant rhetoric available? That's the underlying assumption I get from the books and articles I read on the "boy crisis". Well, at least there are still fashion magazines, neurotic, underfed celebrities and columnists like Candace Bushnell out there to maintain the balance, handicapping female self-esteem at every turn. Every insecure young man should think twice before he sneers at his girlfriend's taste for self-help books and winsome romantic comedies - they're the only thing stopping her from becoming invincible.

©2003 Rick McGinnis - all rights reserved

expecting

Still no baby, but it's close - really close. Here's a bit of anguished woolgathering about waiting, and a bit of hand-wringing about modern boyhood.

And, oh yes, a bit of a rant.

PLACES TO GO:

john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
weisblogg
justin johnson
jeff jarvis
little green footballs
tim blair
uss clueless
relapsed catholic
damian penny
lone dissenter
accordion guy
jim treacher
textism
rockcritics.com
arts & letters
talking points memo
peter maass
cliff yablonski



John Wayne's America- click to buy it

Garry Wills
John Wayne's America

Thanks to a big bunch of recent DVD reissues of John Wayne films, including The Quiet Man, I've discovered a new fascination with the Duke, so I wanted some kind of introduction to the man, and Wills' book - more a meditation than a biography - seemed like a good place to start.

Or so I thought. Don't get me wrong - Wills is a smart man, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about Wayne, but I finished his book with the impression that he, like too many cultural commentators tackling subjects or icons considered "questionable" in polite circles, had written a book without any sign of learning anything new about his subject. It seems, on the whole, like a bit of a waste of time.

Wayne's enduring appeal - he was still, in 1995, voted the most popular movie star in America, sixteen years after his death - is obviously a fact that Wills feels a need to address, and I doubt that anyone willing to sit through every film he made, from The Big Trail to The Shootist, can say that it was an awful chore. He does a great job of anatomizing the appeal of Wayne - that embodiement of masculinity, of strength and straight-talking dignity that made him a role model for politicians as obvious as Ronald Reagan and as unlikely as Newt Gingrich. And he paints a compelling but unhappy picture of Wayne's submissive relationship with John Ford.

But he can't stop needling Wayne about flaws behind the image, like his avoidance of military service in WW2, much the way Ford did the same thing. Unlike Ford, though, Wills' target is Wayne the superpatriot, Wayne as Sgt. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima, Wayne (untruthfully) bragging about driving blacklisted High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman out of the country, Wayne spectacularly failing on his promise to make a historically truthful account of the Alamo.

Sure enough, there's a lot to dislike about Wayne the man, but all of this is available in any number of the conventional biographies that Wills' assures us from the start that he has no intention of writing. In the end, Wills' doesn't add much to our perception of Wayne, and only grudgingly (to me) admits the power of Wayne's onscreen presence, a power that surpasses his rather limited skill as an actor.

He ends the book with a quick shot at placing Wayne and his films in the context of American exceptionalism, and the frontier myth of Frederick Jackson Turner. It feels a bit pat, like in the end he had nothing new to say about Wayne, and had to fall back on these old chestnuts, standard issue in the intellectual luggage of any poli-sci undergrad.

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