The Didactic Interview: Sarah Schulman

Good news, everybody! The Didactic SynCast is back! After months of silence, my podcast is online once again. And what a time to return — I scored an interview with the amazing writer and activist Sarah Schulman, author of the new novel The Cosmopolitans, based on Honoré de Balzac’s La Cousine Bette. Have a listen and subscribe to the new iTunes feed.

Here are links to things we discuss:

Rock is Cool but the Struggle is Better

In 1999 the Indigo Girls released a song called “Go”, on their album Come On Now Social. It’s got awesome lyrics about fighting for a better world and what we owe to those women and men who fought for us to have so much. Once upon a time I made a video for it, but I never put it on YouTube. If there’s any noise here, maybe I’ll upload it.

Anyway, there’s a line in the song that has always given me pause:

Feed the fire and fan the flame
I know you kids can stand the rain
I know the kids are still upsetters
‘Cause rock is cool but the struggle is better

It’s a good point (and it suits my point made in Creative Writing about building to the fourth line in a quatrain), but I want to pick up on the final concept there. I think one reason why so many kids find their way into rock (and not the struggle) is because it’s easy to find one’s place in rock. Especially today, when the varieties of music — and easy access to them — are at our fingertips, there’s a seductiveness that’s built into our social lives that protest and political activity doesn’t cater to. (This doesn’t even account for the massive industries organized around music, which we’ll take as a given.)

The truth is that taking action for a better world isn’t usually fun, and the vast majority of the population doesn’t take part. As a result, being in the struggle is often a lonely activity, and it can be exhausting. This is unfortunate, because (as Abbie Hoffman once pointed out) we need young people in the front, since they’re impatient and they haven’t grown jaded like so many adults.

As I’ve said elsewhere, however, being part of the struggle can provide a sense of history and purpose like nothing else in our fractured, chaotic world. (And it’s how I met my wife, heh.) More to the point, however: The struggle needs to happen, and there are plenty of people making rock a reality. Who among us is willing to step up and move the struggle forward?

Burning Away

/u/Crinkles_Montgomery posted this on Reddit. Superb work, made from UNKLE’s “Burn My Shadow” and stock video footage.

Reminds me of this quote from David Foster Wallace:

 If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

Lynn Nottage > George RR Martin

If a primary purpose of combat fiction is to remind us of the horrors of war, you couldn’t pick a more disturbing setting than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict there has killed five million people, including unspeakable terrors of rape and torture.

It is in the DRC that Lynn Nottage sets her Pulitzer-winning 2009 play Ruined. It holds nothing back from the truth of war, displaying the most inhuman moments of evil and forcing us to confront people at their worst.

But it is a play that is, by design, not pessimistic. It’s not naive or simplistic, but it avoids the trap of pessimism so common to 21st century writers, especially Game of Thrones novelist George RR Martin. (I’ve written about his pessimism before.)

Nottage traveled to the DRC and Uganda with the theatre director Kate Whoriskey. They met women and men who had experienced war in its most hideous manifestations. They saw the psychological, emotional, familial, physical, and spiritual decimation caused by the fighting. They spoke with women whose bodies, minds, and souls had been violated and torn asunder.

And still Nottage wrote a story of hope.

Whoriskey says it perfectly in her introduction to the play:

She decided [...] in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda. What struck both of us from our trip was that while there was incredible chaos in the region, this was home, and people were determined to survive and build lives here. When the media focuses attention on these areas, they often describe the violence, the poverty and the AIDS crisis. It is rare to hear the full story, the positive alongside the negative.

What was so rich about our trip is that we witnessed great beauty, strength and artistry.

[...] On a different trip to the region, Lynn spoke with a Rwandan about life after the genocide. He said to her, “We must fight to sustain the complexity.” This phrase became a mantra for creating the piece. We did not want to focus solely on the damage but also the hope. [...]

Lynn has the gift and genius for looking inside moments of profound disruption, witnessing the chaos, absorbing the psychic damage, and then synthesizing a narrative that shows us we are capable of so much more.

I find no hope in Game of Thrones. I find it to be a story utterly devoid of hope, committed primarily to stylistic innovation (of which it contains plenty) and audience manipulation (which, again, it does well). The fact that Martin cares very little about reflecting the hope we humans so desperately need proves (to me, at least) that he is unwilling to fight to sustain the complexity.

As a result, we don’t get the full story.

The Pessimism of George RR Martin and the Inadequacy of Game of Thrones

“Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.” — Leon Eisenberg

“All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality.” — Elias Canetti

“[A pessimist is] a man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.” — George Bernard Shaw

Note: I haven’t read the books. If you feel this disqualifies me from responding to the show, it’s probably best that you stop reading now. You will be missed.

Game of Thrones is the Human Centipede of fantasy epics in the 21st century. Both stories revel in the deplorable wretchedness of humans at their worst, without any viable mention of compassion, empathy, or conscience. Both stories work primarily to shock and revolt audiences, exploiting our emotions rather than digging into the deep soil of humanity.

There’s no question about the skill of Monsieur Martin (and the show’s writers) in creating complex characters, effective dialogue, and epic story arcs. My complaint is not with his skill with the tools of fiction writing; my complaint is with how he uses these tools.

There’s also no question about — and therefore hopefully no reason for me to discuss — the horrible brutality of GoT. We’re introduced to sympathetic characters and hopeful situations, only to watch them mutilated without mercy. Much has been written about the veneer of Schadenfreude that permeates Martin’s work, and many of his fans delight in watching newcomers cringe and squirm as good butchered by evil.

Responding to this phenomenon, Martin is quite clear. When asked by Entertainment Weekly if his books present a cynical view of human nature, he said:

I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture?

A fair question, and I wish neither to argue to problem of evil from scratch, nor demand a theistic narrative paradigm. But Martin’s worldview as depicted in GoT is unrelentingly negative, and it is pessimistic. It pretends that compassion and empathy are statistically insignificant freaks of nature.

But this is not a full and fair accounting of reality, and I am tired of seeing hideous atrocities presented as the only “real” things, with the vast array of other human interaction derided as “unrealistic”.

To wit: Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He worked with the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. He clearly believed that there was a pathology in carpet-bombing thatched huts in Vietnam, and that he could do some good in refusing to fight.

So where are the conscientious objectors in Westeros? Why are there no scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil? I’m not calling for simplistic Pollyanna happiness, nor an idiotic deus ex machina to stop the wicked machinations of the Lannisters. But blood and suffering are the only “reality” we’re given. (A few tiny moments of romantic or motherly tenderness are inevitably bookmarked by elongated sequences of torture, rape, and murder.)

At the risk of repeating myself: Those horrible atrocities are not the full and fair reality of our world.

You cannot tell the story of the Santa Cruz massacre without mentioning Amy Goodman. You cannot tell the story of Black September without mentioning Marie Colvin. You cannot tell the story of Rwanda without mentioning Paul Rusesabagina. You cannot tell the story of the My Lai massacre without mentioning Hugh Thompson, Jr. And so on.

I’m not done with Game of Thrones, but I’m sick of its facile emotional exploitation. If a storyteller asks me to give up 30 hours of my life, I think I deserve a little more than crude manipulation and superficial reminders of how nasty people can be.