Is Jake Gyllenhaal the Reincarnation of Marcel Proust?

The Guardian today featured an article on an upcoming auction of documents related to French literature. One of the notable letters is from Marcel Proust who was taking time away from contemplating lost time to complain about his neighbors:

The most amusing letter in the collection, Bonna said, was from Proust to the son of his landlord…In the letter, Proust complains about being able to hear his neighbours’ loud sex. The noise was not the problem, the letter reveals: “Beyond the partition, the neighbours make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.”

As they brought up the subject of Proust, there is another historical resemblance in my continuing series I thought I might mention:

“His Own People”

“…if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’”-Oscar Wilde

You have undoubtedly by now heard about Sean Spicer’s comments at a White House briefing earlier today in which he compared the Assad regime to Hitler and seemed to suggest that Assad was way worse. After being asked to clarify his statement that Hitler had not sunk to the level of using chemical weapons he explained:

“He was not using the gas on his own people the same way…”

Spicer later went on CNN to apologize for what he said. “I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison. And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

I give Spicer some credit for saying “I apologize” rather than saying “mistakes were made” and “I’m sorry if you were offended.” But Spicer did not mis-speak, he mis-thought. The problem with his off-the-cuff response was not the comparison or the wording but the mindset that created it. Hitler did not kill “his people,” Spicer said. In Spicer’s understanding of the Holocaust, the category of “Germans” does not include the category of “Jews.” The Jews lived amongst the Germans, but were different from them. Thus the Germans committed violence against another people, not their own. We are used to this framing. Germans killed Jews. But, in fact, Germans killed Germans. They killed Germans who had a different religion.

Timothy Snyder put it powerfully the Guardian:

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, German authorities, beginning in 1939, gassed millions of people to death. The first victims were German citizens deemed handicapped and thus “unfit for life.” After Germans with local assistance had shot about a million Jews in Eastern Europe, gassing was added as a second technique of mass murder. Jews were killed by carbon monoxide at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, and by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

This matters because when we fail to recognize the fallacy of the frame then we are at risk of behaving in the same way. When we define some group of our neighbors as fundamentally not us it rarely ends well.

A few days ago I recorded my thoughts after watching the film The Normal Heart, a movie that dramatizes the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community. I wrote about my own shameful lack of action when one of my floor mates cut out the picture of the president of the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance from the student paper and stuck it on the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and the words “No Lezzies.” I was able to stand aside because I did not see myself as the target. In that moment, I had decided along with the tormentors, to categorize that young woman as different, someone I could disassociate from, rather that as my fellow student and therefore like me.

A few years ago I read a book called Love the Sin by Jakobsen and Pellegrini. The authors took a look at newspaper and magazine headlines and examined who “we” were imagined to be, and who the headline writers imagined were “others.”

For example they took the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?” And noted: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.”

The gay men who died from AIDS were not separate from the general public, they were part of the general public.

This mindset, that people who have a difference are not part of us, but are simply living amongst us, when carried to its extreme sees those others as the enemy within. It becomes quite easy to blame our social ills on them. When this is allowed to go unchecked, the consequences can be deadly.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen used the word “eliminationist” to describe this point of view in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The eliminationists, he argued, believed that “For Germany to be properly ordered, regulated, and for many, safeguarded, Jewishness had to be eliminated from German society. What ‘elimination’– in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness–meant, and the manner in which this was to be done, was unclear and hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German antisemitsm. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social.”

Eliminationist rhetoric focuses on the enemy within and advocates for the elimination of that group.  In 2009 David Neiwart of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a book called The Eliminationists in which he described the “core myth” of such movements as palingenesis or “a Phoenix-like national rebirth.”

Today we are once again hearing a lot of talk about alien invaders of the American body social. This is combined with the idea of a national rebirth. We need to tread carefully.

To quote Snyder again, “To recall Hitler as the cartoon supervillain of momentary convenience is to prevent serious consideration of the kinds of politics and policies that made mass killing possible. They begin when authorities invite us to exclude neighbors from the community by associating them with a global threat…The truth is, Hitler did kill his own people. And the killing began with the disowning. It is precisely the stigmatization and murder of the people who were gassed that removed them from the national community to which they believed they belonged. ”

In my article on The Normal Heart, I had originally included one more paragraph about my time at this college. In the end, I cut it out. At the time, it seemed to personal, and I was not sure what point I was making with it. Here is what I left out: Ironically, or perhaps it was divine justice, only a few months later I was discriminated against for being a lesbian. Nothing had actually changed about me, but I had gotten on the wrong side of one of my roommates and she retaliated by spreading false rumors. I did not know that she had been doing this. I only knew that people suddenly seemed to be giving me the cold shoulder. After a few months of this, another roommate confessed that she now realized the other roommate was a pathological liar. She told me what she had heard about me, apologized for believing it and now she wanted to be friends. How could I? If she had been willing to tread me badly when she thought I was gay, how could I accept her friendship simply because she had decided I was not? You may think that you will never find yourself among “the others” but can you be sure of that?

I initially wrote and posted this article last night around midnight and it ended at the previous paragraph. This morning I woke up and read Snyder’s excellent article in The Guardian. He was making the same point I had been, but he articulated something better, I feel, than I did.

As Victor Klemperer, the great student of Nazi language, long ago pointed out, when Nazis spoke of “the people” they always meant “some people.” Mr Spicer has imitated that usage. Some people, our “own people,” are more worthy of life than others.

First the Nazi regime murdered German citizens. Then it murdered others. People who learned to disown neighbors also learned to kill foreigners. And all of the murders were equally wrong. The politics of Nazi killing has two steps: creating the other within, and then killing the other without. It all begins with the nefarious distinction Spicer made without even thinking about it: that murder of others is somehow not as bad as the murder of one’s own.

Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.

Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.

 

 

 

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

Vanishing Women

Buckley 1911I was writing yesterday about Yoi Pawloska, also known as Yoi Maraini, a travel writer and free spirit who I became aware of because of a brief connection to Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s literary executor and one of the main characters in my forthcoming Oscar’s Ghost.

Her connection to my story is a society scandal in which the young woman, then known as Edith Buckley, left her husband and two children after she fell in love with Coleridge Kennard. Robert Ross was one of the people who tried to intervene to prevent a larger scandal.

The young lovers did not marry, and after her divorce a broken-hearted Yoi traveled Europe and wrote the first of many books.  They received mostly positive reviews, albeit reviews that used feminine adjectives like “charming” which denote something other than seriousness. Was her work really more lightweight than that of the many male poets who populate the edges of Oscar Wilde’s narrative? She was more prolific than many, and also worked as a journalist interviewing Mussolini for the Saturday Review.

Her granddaughter, the Italian novelist Dacia Maraini, would one day write, “…after two generations, the silence about her was more tenacious than the desire to remember her. She was surrounded by an aura of scandal– a solitary traveller, and adulteress abandoning husband and children to follow the man she loved, but with whom she wasn’t able to build a family, remarried later to a man ten years her junior. Things our family did not speak much about. Actually, to tell the truth, we did not speak of them at all.”

There was no great desire to remember Yoi.

Today I was reading a book and a reference came up to Dame Hariette Chick. She lived from 1875 to 1977.  One of the leading microbiologists of her day, she was instrumental in finding a cure for rickets. I had that moment of surprise, that I always do, to learn of an accomplished professional woman from another era. Each time I discover a woman like this she stands out as exceptional and singular.

Why is that? A few weeks ago, I watched a program on our local PBS station about the Van Hoosen farm, near my home, and the sisters who eventually ran it. One of them was Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, a pioneering obstetrician.

I find myself wondering, how many “exceptions to the rule” do I have to encounter before I start to question whether “the rule” accurately reflects history?