Posts Tagged ‘Identity politics’

Society is no comfort/To one not sociable — Shakespeare, Imogen, Cymbeline, IV:2, 12-13

The Walking Stick: Deborah (Samantha Eggar) badly lamed leaning on Leigh (David Hemmings) (1970, Eric Till, Winston Graham, George Bluestone)

Dear friends and readers,

Disabled characters have increased in numbers in popular fiction & film in the last quarter century. Has there been a genuine increase in sympathetic empathy and understanding, any real help offered such people or acceptance as a result. It would seem not. I link these two phenomena to the growth of fandoms in cyberspace and elsewhere and how they effect the development of programs and series of fictions. Why there are there. I exemplify briefly with the way disabled characters from Sondheim’s Passion to Winston Graham’s mystery and Poldark novels are treated, and more at length in Downton Abbey, from Fellowes’s himself to the indifferent to hostile commentary on him & Anna, the head housemaid who loves him.


A spin-off from both the APA/ACA and ASECS conferences: in both there were roundtable panels on “disability studies: I feared not enough would be said in the more casual talks these roundtables offer to take up enough time and the audience would be called upon to talk, and then feared I’d reveal myself too much or get too involved. I have seen academic people present themselves as interested in isabilities and found that they were not, except as an abstract topic; worse, if I probed I discovered the people were just as strong for enforcing “normalcy” (on behalf of “success”), just as prejudiced (not taking a whole personality into account, not being willing to critique their definitions of success), fearful and/or nervous in their reactions. I worried I’d feel angry or know intense dismay.

So I didn’t go, and now regret this because what I did do was take down names of journals, books and periodicals with disability studies for today. First off I learned that in the last quarter century there’s been a huge increase in the number of disabled characters in popular fiction. It might be the disabled characters were always there in mystery-crime fiction, though not acknowledged, as villains or victims, but not being acknowledged, presented as freaks, or evil, or reprehensible in some way. But this is a big change to presenting people with disabilities in a sympathetic or seeming sympathetic way. Nowadays disability is also popular in historical fiction and romance. So that I noticed so many disabled characters in Winston Graham does not show originality on his part, but rather a following of a zeitgeist.

I won’t cite the names of the articles or journals separately unless someone asks for these (in the comments) which is most unlikely, just describe generally. Most were studies of texts or art in the close reading humanities way today (looking sociologically, how they function in society). Basically there were two schools of thought: one argues that the new wave of appearances of disabled characters is not increasing any real understanding or sympathy for people with disabilities because 1) at the end the disabled person is forcibly or seemingly willingly co-opted into the “normal” world, made to seem “normal” and the point is to defuse the person as a threat, on the way the emphasis in portrayal is the disability itself with full utterly varied richness of people ignored; it’s voyeurism; and 2) we see very little progress in the outer world for funding, real acceptance, or even understanding in wider circles of people. The other argues that the spread of such depictions does help; little by little the stories make people no longer ignore the disabled, no longer erase them altogether, and does gradually work up sympathy and we may hope for change.

When Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) wants to visit the crippled Mrs Smith (Helen Schlesinger), her father rages at her with open disgust for her “queer” tastes (from the 1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell, Nick Dear)

Then there are essays on particular works or authors or sub-genres: how disabled people are presented in romance; how presented in mystery-crime stories (where they’ve long been an unacknowledged central type, either as villain or victim); in later Victorian gothic. The way they are discussed in non-fiction case histories, which sometimes turn out to be obtuse fictions which promulgate single-minded freakish stereotyped views, e.g., Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which invites voyeurism. Once in a while a particular writer or work is found which increases understanding and sympathy. The value of these is if you want to do such studies they show you how to do and what’s said, and give you insights.

Two good books are worth noting: Women with Disabilities, ed. Michelle Fine (and others). Fine’s the one who’s done intelligent candid studies of how women who have been raped are treated, women’s studies. The kind of character includes is Fosca in Tarchetti’s book (now called Passion from Sondheim): I’ve noticed again and again women who are presented as disabled are eroticized, made beautiful but for the disability which then adds to their alluringness (and the kick of having sex with them in the imagination apparently). Another is more historical and crosses gender, class, ethnicity: Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature. The truth is many people still believe in disabilities only if they are physical.

Fosca from Passion, made plain not crippled (yet this came from a website mocking the addictive love affair)

From what I’ve read thus far I think the those who say this increase in visibility has not led to a gain in empathy or understanding are right. Even when the novel does not enforce normalcy, readerships insist on misreading the fiction to emphasize a happy ending at the close — happy being equivalent to assimilation and erasure. From what I’ve seen in real life — the cutting off of funding, the cutting out of Aspergers from the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Physicians Manuel), and the increase in coercive techniques & drugs among psychologists again those who say more visibility has not helped are right. No one really has a mechanism for helping such people gain self-sustaining employment for or proposes helping older adults socially for real at all.

Misreading in terms of the readers’ own identity needs, to throw off a threat of anything unknown or new leads me to the other related topic I heard discussed at the conference and want to consider again. Next time (if there is one for me at either conference), and if I have a chance to go on panels about fandoms, fanzines, I will. The book here is Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.


Fandoms are one aspect of different ways of life in the Net that are reactions the increasing anonymity and loss of community in US life, the impoverishment of individuals and high unemployment rate so that people come onto the Net to find community, meaning when there is nothing where they live. These groups replace religious communities too, can be a religious community, and they are real. It’s another instance where the idea that what happens on the Net is not real is false. In the 1950s Richard Hoggart wrote a book called The Uses of Literacy where he argued that TV was being used to create “imagined communities” which through propaganda and loyalty to shows inculcated in people Tory reactionary values; again people at a loss, people left out, communities devastated by global capitalism; the book was re-issued during the 1980s Thatcher years.

But it’s not true that these are imagined and unreal communities. These groups of people active and aggressive; authors ignore them at their peril. They meet outside the Net when they can and influence where they can. They will punish, ostracize, exclude the person who takes a different view and attack that. I have found it very painful to deal with such people; actually I can’t, don’t know how to. They can be group bloggers. They can be seen whirling to some extent around mini-series programs, Games of Thrones say or Downton Abbey.

How do you recognize a fandom. It’ll be a message board where anonymity is enforced, and thus no one held accountable. No personal relationships can develop easily. In the case of films or TV, the re-doing of bits of films in YouTube videos to change the original meanings of scenes to fit what the fans want and posting of these. They can be embarrassing. Fierce conversations which a given aggressive individual will not give up. I’d say worse than some of what happens on Austen-l only it’s moderated so the two or three people moderating immediately shut up whoever has said what they don’t agree with (they were particularly fierce over sex), “community” activities centered on the actors and stars of the films and a whole range of sociological or psychological phenomena having to do with inventing a fictional identity. They do meet outside the Net when they can. A pre-screening of the new Sherlock in a New York movie-house brought fans from around the country to meet in the movie-house, see their movie, eat and talk together afterward.

A deeply sexual shot: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees about to go to bed together as Ross and Demelza Poldark (1975 Part 7)

Examples include Harry Potter, Batman, Dr Who, Star Wars, long-running TV programs. My experience has been with the Winston Graham Society webpage, really a message board dedicated to discussing two of the famous stars from the first mini-series: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees (although she’s dead now). I had read in Graham’s autobiography this group succeeded in damning a 1996 film and making it impossible to go on; a paper I heard at ACA showed that the group influenced the second season of the films. I was told by one woman my discussion of disability, violence and sex in Graham’s fiction “deeply upset” her so how dare I? No one should write about this series what could upset her, no details allowed. I had notice how many disabled (often autistic) characters Graham has in his Poldark and mystery novels; how he studies alienation (Marni) and individual loss sympathetically and wanted to discuss this. The shattering of one of the heroines from continual marital rape; the reality the hero rapes one of the chief heroines and the son they have, neglected and over-indulged (anything but taken care of) after her death grows up disturbed and lonely enough to reach out for an orangutan as a companion. Forget it.

Facebook pages dedicated to famous stars or authors identified as conservative and classic, or with some ethnicity or doctrine. The audience for Austen’s books is leavened because it includes different types of people, academics and heritage industry and there’s a lot of money to be made on sequels and conferences and tourism so the fandom cannot invent this world of its own and control the material. Austen has prestige, her texts are not considered trivial and worthless in the way of say Star Trek and other texts around which fandoms whirl. These groups dislike any criticism of their author; they will justify or excuse or explain away the smallest unfavorable remark. Their identities have become involved, their egos, their self-image. They build whole worlds around their texts & shows.

Tellingly, for people interested to see if popular fiction that has a wide enthusiastic audience can function to increase the sympathetic imagination, the fiercest hostile responses come from any assertion that the fetishized material explores sexuality or gender in unconventional ways, has an ambiguous or sad ending, shows the hero to be less than admirable (violent for example, politically radical).



I’ll end on the treatment of disability in Downton Abbey, the first season. Since I think I do not misread, I cannot tell what the misreading would be precisely, probably in the direction of scorn or dismissal or somehow turning the disability into what’s normal if “unwanted,” as Sir Anthony Strallon was treated in the third season, or silence, as the man with the heinously disfigured face was in the second — both given over to the program-scapegoat, Edith.

In the first part of Downton Abbey, the lamed Mr Bates is almost fired because few will accept his disability: most take it as a blemish on community, insist he will not be able to do his job, a few ridicule him, a couple (that’s enough) tell false tales; Lord Grantham almost fires him but his decency and better self seeing the cruelty and injustice of the act, keeps him on at the close of the hour.

In the third part, Mr Bates still driven by fear he’ll be fired, tormented by cruel jeering or physical gestures (as when Miss Obrien trips and humiliates him) buys an instrument of torture to make himself walk more straight. As the hour wears on we see Bates in pain, leaning over in agony, having a sour expression, indeed not be able to do his job. (In the context of the hour’s juxtaposition, the parallel is the ejection of Pamuk’s corpse from Lady Mary’s room after he half-rapes her; both are trash which ruin the body and probably spirit of the character.) Finally Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper insists on seeing what is wrong with Mr Bates, and he shows her his leg, now covered with blood and sores from the contraption on it.

As ever Fellowes is on the side of the mainstream: we next see the pair by the side of a river on the property. Mr Bates has agreed to throw the thing away. The lesson Mrs Hughes instructs Mr Bates to remember is: “I promise I will never again try to cure myself, I will spend my life happily as the butt of others’ jokes and I will never mind them.” Mrs Hughes: “We all carry scars Mr Bates, inside or out, you’re no different than the rest of us, remember that.” Mr Bates: “I will try to that I do promise.” And then he hurls it off, and she cries “good riddance.’

The part about not trying to cure oneself is good — autism month should be called autism acceptance month. The group of articles I have include two arguing the higher ends of autism include people who are in many ways more gifted than the average and would not have to consider themselves disabled if others didn’t ostracize and punish them. And Mr Bates is doing his job fine. But the second part half-blaming Mr Bates and saying it was he who considered himself different is the narrow cold-shouldering mind of the establishment speaking, demanding in effect (were he autistic) that he be neurotypical and leads to people purchasing such contraptions or having painful useful dangerous operations. Stiff upper lip. Never admit to anything.

Mr Bates and Anna (Joanna Froggart) end of Part 5: he getting into cart

As far as I could tell from reading the fan’s responses to the hour, they were sympathetic to the obtuse and mean Lady Mary; in his notes to the script Fellowes exclaimed against letters to him decrying a supposed buggery — the people couldn’t endure that Lady Mary should lose her virginity (hymen) so they jumped to the conclusion buggery had occurred and this was why the man had a heart-attack (!). (How revealing of silent suppositions this is.) And on-line people quickly tired of Mr Bates — by the second season as homely and a “sob-story” (“passive-aggressive” was a favorite phrase)and felt excruciated when (they felt) asked to identify with Anna, for they would not have fallen in love with Mr Bates as she slowly does for his intelligence, integrity, good nature, refusal to kowtow or forsake his dignity, good heart (of which we see instances).

A friend wrote:

Mrs. Hughes’s comment that ‘we all carry scars’ nags me, however. Who is the “we?” On the first glance, I’d take it to be a universal statement–the series shows that everyone, upstairs or downstairs, has their problems, but I’m not convinced it is a universal “we.” (I’m sure Fellowes meant it to be.) Is the “we” the servants? However, whether or not Mrs. Hughes “we” is universal, this leads me to think that disability plays out differently between servants and masters — Matthew’s Hemingwayesque war wound, leaving him “crippled” and impotent, is a parallel to Mr. Bates’ disability — both
are physical and both call into the question each man’s ability to do his primary “job” — in Matthew’s case of course, to “make the heir,” but one has a miraculous cure and the other not …

Yes. Who is the we? In the case of the servants, they have no buffer or support to help them if they are rejected, so they must conform and if they cannot, must not complain.

I was told again and again how my blogs on Downton Abbey took “a different view,” and at times (especially around the character of Edith whose scapegoating I exposed) attacked. Twenty years from now attitudes will have frozen and it will be hard to talk freely to those still remembering (many will no longer but move on). I never did discuss disability in Downton Abbey. I should have. So have made up for that now.


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Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past — George Orwell

The past is a competitive business — Peter Borsay

The women, Tom and Matthew (final shot of watchers)

Thomas, Lord Grantham and Dr Clark (near final shot of players)

Buvan, great-souled (Aamir Khan), at bat (nowhere near final shot)

Dear friends and readers,

But wait, you are saying, whence that third still? who can they be? the hero is not white, not even in white. Buvan! How did Aamir Khan get into the grounds? Patience, gentle reader.

I’ve no doubt we were to take the ending of Season 3 as charity itself (as in “the adieu” of Darcy). Thomas (Rob James-Collier) not excluded, not handed over to the police after all; far from sacked, he’s to be under-butler. No silly soup of emotional sentimentalism either. There’s the Duchess (Maggie Smith), holding out, determined as ever. She has gotten rid of the (gratifyingly grateful) Ethel (Amy Nuttall) who was continuing to cause all that dreadful “talk:”

Ethel and Mrs Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) standing by, outflanked

I mean what’s a friend to do? Ethel had a plan (it seems). She will tell her beloved child, Charlie, brought up by his grandparents in a great house nearby where she is to be cook (Mrs Patmore’s ex-pupil now) that she was his nanny when he was baby. What more could she want? Her life is rebuilt (we may remember the mocking laughter of the prostitutes taught to sew earlier this season). As Mrs Crawley admits, no one will know. “The slate wiped clean.” Did you not feel that you had an instance of Mrs Wood’s East Lynne before you, fully explained, nay justified?

But Thomas, now, suffering crying Thomas


has been allowed to stay.

In case you missed this part (or fell asleep by the second hour on PBS), this last part has shown us that Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) is the kind of homosexual who when they make public office cover up their own activity by ceaselessly persecuting other homosexuals. He’s after Thomas’s body fluids in another way. If Mr Carson (Jim Carter) gives Thomas the good reference (all heart is Mr Carson even though Thomas is “revolting,” lives in a “revolting world”), he, Jimmy, will go to the police. Who saved the day? Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) again (she did it for Ethel) to the rescue. It seems Mrs H knows of such men (!) and believes Jimmy led Thomas on. Mr Carson bows to her authority (ironically) and she goes to Mr Bates. She is not missing from the cricket game, although naturally not to be seen under the tent nor in all white

Naturally all discretion, behind her we get to glimpse Daisy (Sophie McSheara), Ivy (Cara Theobold) and Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nicol) as befits their rank

Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran), that insidious spying witch, has also poured effective poison into the ears of her nephew, Alfred (Matt Milne) but is defeated by a mere two words uttered in her ears by a gallant Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) who has returned all Thomas’s treachery and mockery of him with an act of supreme generosity: “her ladyship’s soap.” (So Mrs Hughes said were the magic words.)


This also nicely rounds out Season 3 by bringing us back to Season 1 where (we are to recall) Miss Obrien caused her ladyship’s miscarriage and near death by putting a cake of soap near her bath and leaving her ladyship to slip and fall, thus keeping Matthew the unexpected heir.

The camera on the puzzled Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) so as to spare us the shattered woman

Miss Obrien I say nowhere to be seen at last. Nor Jimmy just now.

Alfred is not let off so easily. Peculiarly slow in the brain-pan, once an idea is put into his head, it’s hard to dislodge it, so he has gone to the police about Thomas; said police turn up to take Thomas away, but Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) now to the rescue. There has been some misunderstanding he tells the police, and by a mere word and look gets Alfred to apologize and confess he was “squiffy.” For those not in the know of 1920s upper-class slang, that means drunk, and Alfred mistook some “rough-housing” between male servants. We see in the policemen’s looks they don’t believe a word of it,


but Lord Grantham’s word overrides all and the victim they nearly had their claws on is saved — at the cost of Alfred’s humiliation.

We are supposed to find it ironically amusing that part of his Lordship’s motivation is Thomas’s supreme ability at cricket. Grantham would not want to lose such a valuable player. As long as we assume all homosexuals would be treated horrifically by everyone they meet in this era (not true), these grudging good faeries (Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes, Mr Bates, his Lordship) seem noble and we have learnt our warning lesson about how hard it is in life to be a gay man.

Of course not that his Lordship really cares who wins. At the closing moments when Molesley (Bernard Gallagher) has (no surprise there) flubbed it, he not being any more manly than Sir Anthony Strallon (Robert Bathurst) was — I mean just imagine Strallon trying to play cricket –, Lord Grantham, I say, shows he does not care who won after all. The thing is to play the game. And why? it’s an assertion of a vision, that of the sporting British empire, all-inclusive, all powerful, endlessly pastoral green, unproblematically hierarchical enacted before us.

Which brings me to Buvan — look up, gentle reader — that dark-skinned man in black playing cricket too. The scene comes from an intensely anti-imperialist, anti-British powerful Indian Hindi movie, Lagaan, which also ends in a cricket game. Only there it mattered who won, and it mattered big. The situation:

It hasn’t rained for two years in Champaner, a village in sweltering central India, but Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne, who is a Billy Zane doppelgänger), the commander of the local British regiment, isn’t about to give the parched villagers a break. He makes a bet with Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), the most spirited of the villagers (and of course, the handsomest), but only because he believes it’s a sure thing: If the villagers can beat the British regiment in a cricket match, he’ll cancel the land tax for two years; if the British win, the villagers will have to pay three times the normal, unreasonable amount.

Jim, my husband, focused on how at Downton who won does not ultimately matter at all, what matters is the assertion of the abbey, the team spirits carrying on. And this final part lets us know it will, at least for a little while. I remember reading Tariq Ali’s sense of intense irony in recounting how this movie which shows the Indians beating cruel injust British is all about a cricket game. Simon Raven has a cricket game at the close of his adaptation of Trollope’s Pallisers, and some people who don’t remember the books very well think there is one there. Not so. Trollope was not an imperialist; anyway his sport was hunting.

Important political lessons learned too: like his mother, Isobel Crawley (above) Matthew (Dan Stevens) has compromised, held his tongue, played along; his reward is our princess bride, Mary (Michelle Dockery), and his Lordship’s acquiescence in all his schemes for turning the estate into a business, with the tenants having to pay much more and, with the help of the new steward, Tom Bransom (Allen Leech, who of course turns out to be good at cricket) make much more money for higher rents. You win by giving in to these powerful people. We see where again Mary is in charge in their bedroom trysts when she puts off love-making; he acquiesces and turns out she has been to the physician, had an operation (not a problem) and in this final scene speaks of their “little prince” on the way.

Here she’s all hat

If we were seared for Edith (Laura Carmichael) over her humiliated wedding dream, now we need not worry. Hers is indeed a Jane Eyre story, but it’s one robbed of all rebellion, all radical feeling & thought. She has kissed the whip several times by now in her piety before her father and grandmother (who responded we recall to Edith’s mild complaint with “don’t whine”) and gotten a job as a journalist. Congratulated by the editor, Charles Edwards (Michael Gregson) for not writing just about women (whew! she’s not going to be one of these militant feminists, a one note Sally), she was nonetheless put off by his seeming to flirt with her. Horrors. She checks him out and discovers he’s married. A true daughter of this house, she’s learnt her lesson not to want a man beyond all, and she does not hesitate to say she quits, only to be told he has a mad wife in an asylum and simply in such dire need of hope, a good woman’s affection, that she apparently agrees to stay.

Edith has ever been a sympathetic listener

(Come back next year, gentle reader)

In all this Edith shows her distance from a character newly introduced, the foolish great-niece, Lady Rose McClare (Lily James), with sly salacious smile (joyfully compliant anyone?, a kind of Barbie doll made real) who just lends herself out to be seduced by a man lying about his wife and is rescued by a trio of Matthew, Edith, and Lady Rosamund Painswick (the aunt, Samantha Bond). The scene reminded me of the trio at the close of Don Giovanni who rescue the silly Zerlina. Perhaps this sweeping dismissal of teenage girls in the invention of this character provided the worst because so priggish moment in the hour.


There is at least something redeeming about all but Miss Obrien forgiving Mr Barrow, even if the terms upon which it’s done bring us to “don’t ask, don’t tell” of your great shame. Ethel does not end up in the streets, with her new skill (pace the Dowager’s sneer) she may hold out until the whirligig of time is in her favor. The woman who should have been her mother-in-law, Mrs Byrant (Christine Mackie) is another of these compromiser’s with viciousness: Ethel should leave the scornful Mr Byrant, the boy’s grandfather to his wife. The depiction of Lady Rose has no such compensations. The character as conceived reminded me of Sheridan’s conservative depiction of young women as Lydia Languishes, eager to jump out windows. So much for rebellion. The dowager tells Lady Rose she will be kept on a tight leash (like a puppy?) until she’s of age. For her own good of course.

Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) back to loyal sweet do-nothing: thus she enacts a woman satisfied with a rich woman’s life

Tom Bransom is now prepared to live at Downton (as Matthew has learned to) and allow his daughter to be brought up there. His reward is no longer to be an exile. He is taken into the great home place and this not-exact parallel to the end of another rebellion (Sybil’s marriage) fits the Lady Rose story. In the end you will be assimilated.

If not visible, Miss Obrien is protected by her ladyship and Mrs Hughes’s silence: one night before the cricket game Cora must hurry off to “Obrien’s” care (it’s evening) lest she be “scolded.”

How inclusive it all is! Anyone left out that you can think of, gentle reader?


Despite Miss Obrien’s telling Ivy to “stay out of it,” Ivy carries on disapproving of Jimmy’s intransigence, forcing him to leave the table

So, in this mini-series and hour we see charity enacted — within the limits of stereotypes controlled by conventions which insist on a heterosexual nuclear family as the way of life that is safe.

This final part of season three ends in the big ritual scene Part 1 did. The whole self-preserving system is enacted before us: the community is self-perpetuating; who a character is, is as much a function of his or her place in this paradigmatic system as what he or she does over the course of the sequence. There is an appetite for real community that Downton Abbey feeds, and for those who can respond to what there is in it of kindness (a good deal) and mutual support, watch it as it were against the grain, aware of the ambivalence in the portraits of the hard authority figures.

Those who are fans for such series ignore the reality that the fakery and bogus nature of much that is represented in shows like Downton Abbey is not one that is widely popular; many turn away to commercial channels, to “pop” programs because upon looking at the dress, accents, house, they know they do not belong to this myth. Football instead of cricket; macho-male violent action-adeventure films would be the opposite pole. There are some fine programs on these channels (HBO) and the mini-series and police procedurals, screwball comedies can offer other kinds of ambivalent lessons. But it is rare to find alternative visions of meaningful complex real identities. Probably they are found most often in local theater art, localism.

Right now as individuals the politics of space and place as presented to us in our media seems controlled by corporations backed by military machines. Unemployment remains high, salaries low, much harshly and competitively enacted. That’s why the prospect outside the Abbey seems so bleak. It’s what’s experienced outside it in the 21st century streets & buildings that makes it so alluring.


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Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich, pen-name Scholem Aleichem (1859-1916)

Dear friends and readers,

Izzy and I went to see Scholem Aleichem, or, Laughing in the Darkness late Sunday afternoon. Bob (on Trollope19thCStudies) had recommended it a couple of weeks ago now. So now I’ll repeat the recommendation: it’s a fine film, one of the best I’ve seen in a while (really all summer).

It’s a biographical study of the *Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich*, once a leading Yiddish playwright. Sholem Aleichem is the pen-name of his imagined narrator; apparently Aleichem presents himself as a disembodied persona. He is a part author and or owner of his sad-tragic-comic tales. His characters part respect him (especially the older/father figure): they know they like the tunes; they learn to know and love the words. They converse, and then argue. Mr Perry deplored that so now all Eliza Austen has to do is renew her relationship with William Radcliffe. He cares for real people mirrored in the book’s stories.

The film done with great finesse, candour and insight and sensitivity too. The film-maker, Joseph Dorman, has woven a life through the works in the way of recent written biographies. The viewer more or less follows the trajectory of Aleichem’s life filled out by over-voice comments and commentaries by educated people (and one relative) about these stories and their relevance to Aleichem’s character and life story. (The mode of interview reminded me of NOVA specials). We don’t get an interpretation of the stories for their own sake or a description of their aesthetics. Instead the work is made to reflect the life and used where it would come in the life and it takes up space: the writer is described as writing the work as it’s described. The result in this film is the life is illuminated and so are the stories. The quality is like that of a PBS series some years ago (maybe decades) about a group of American poets supposed to reflect also on American life.

The film done with great finesse, candour and insight and sensitivity too. The viewer more or less follows the trajectory of Aleichem’s life filled out by over-voice narrator storytelling and comments and by commentaries by educated people (and one relative) about these stories interspersed with the life chronology and representations of his works. The mode of interview, with the interviewee in his or her study, reminded me of NOVA specials.

The idea at the heart of the film is to examine the issue of individual identity as it relates to the person’s culture. The point is made the Jewish identity that Aleichem captured and spoke to in his work is now vanished sufficiently so that if you want to present any of them dramatically you have to change the values and what happens in the stories. So when his stories of Tevye, the dairy man, were transformed into Fiddler on the Roof, a successful Broadway musical and film, even the opposite meanings are projected. So when at the end of the story upon which Fiddler on the Roof is based the daughter does not leave the father; she does not go off with her husband in Aleichem’s story, that’s a happy ending (in a semi-tragic tale mind). People who have seen Fiddler on the Roof will recall the daughter does leave, leaves for the successful modern life and that’s the happy ending.

What was especially excellent was how the voice-over narrator, quotations from the stories, pictures, and commentators conveyed the quality of Aleichem’s writing. The theme they emphasized is caught up in the film’s subtitle: laughing in the darkness. Aleichem had himself been the son of a man doing somewhat better than the others in the shtetl; when he was 13, his father lost the money he had had and business. They were bankrupt. The father had sent his son to some sort of secular schooling and even after he found he had no money managed to send him to a high school equivalent where he was reasonably educated. The young man obtained a job as a tutor with a wealthy family and the daughter and he fell in love. He was ejected, but she followed him and they married. Eventually he inherited his father-in-law’s fortune. With that he and his wife moved to Kiev and he started up a periodical and lived the life of a bourgeois intelligentsia person. He lost his money (was not practical) and had to turn to his mother-in-law for help. Periods of poverty alernated with periods of relative prosperity. He saw much in life, the way much is conducted utterly irrationally. The vision of his works seems to be wild laughter in the face of underlying hysteria.

Nothing could be further from Fiddler on the Roof whose feel of the past is nostalgic, sentimental, and comfortable with life. I’ve seen the musical three times on stage and know it rejoices in being alive and suggests the future to come is good.

So I’m not sure this kind of change is from change of identity; often fine works when turned into movies have their essential meanings reversed, partly because the more intelligent thinking reader is only a small part of a mass audience, partly because reading alone to the self invites the text to become about vulnerable asocial experience while watching in a crowd must please the crowd so substitutes strongly socially-oriented perceptions of experience. But it seems to be obvious that the culture Aleichem recreated in his works is now gone from us, and the film was making the point that a new culture had arisen from the old. That people of Jewish ancestry have had to make new or different identities. I agree with that.

I know that I have created a kind of identity for myself and am moved by such stories of such attempts. Mine emerged from my reading of English novels and memoirs from the time I was an adolescent (P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park) to when I got my Ph.D. and went to England, and then married an Englishman. I like to read novels of hybrid-cultures, say Anglo-Indian where you find individuals struggling to find themselves, create some identity they can endure, bear with and the price of this. This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful theme in Namesake.

But it is also a common theme in books today — or how we read them. In my classes last term we treated Graham’s Ross Poldark as about a couple who are individually trying to survive and build lives for themselves which are unconventional while they remain safe. We discussed Andrea Levy’s Small Island as about how one can’t escape a painful identity which is not you but used against you by the society around you. So maybe this modern take in the film tells us more about us than Aleichem. Or as much.

The tone of the talk in the film was upbeat throughout but if you listened to the content what was said was grave. The film’s least upbeat tones were reserved for the death of Yiddish. A library filled with books in Yiddish was filmed. The point was no one or few can read them now. A rich literature just “thrown away” the narrator said, without examination. It was that Yiddish was stigmatized and so it was not wanted.

I know that Yiddish was not the only dialect of Hebrew mixed with a local language across Europe. Yiddish grew up in Eastern Europe (my grandparents spoke Yiddish, my mother used to be able to understand it when it was spoken to her) and was found in German to the Eastern European countries and to Russia, but a different dialect, a compound of Hebrew and Spanish grew up in Spain called Ladino developed and spread across Spain and into Greece, Turkey, the Balkans. So Yiddish was not universal in Europe for Jewry; it could have become universal say through the publication of its newspapers (my grandfather used to read one as I recall) and books in the US and elsewhere, and Aleichem spent much of his genius, money, talents, time trying to create this literature from scratch. But it had no hegemony through power structures. Probably it needed to be taught in public schools run by state gov’ts and was not.

For me the stunning thing was the sheer amount of photos, and films of 19th and early 20th century Jewish life in Russia in the communities where Jewish people were forced to live and also some cities apparently individuals could live in (Kiev, where Aleichem during a period of strong prosperity lived for a time). One could see village life, the intense poverty of these people (often they are dressed in very heavy clothing, even in their houses, signalling how cold it is there), photos of the killings (corpses) left over from the mid-century pogroms which drove Jewish people out of Russia to the US (some stayed in the UK en route), photos of Jewish communities and Aleichem’s funeral in NYC (1913-1916). Of course many photos of Aleichem; one grand or great-granddaughter was one of those interviewed.

It was very moving. The auditorium was full, I’d say mostly of Jewish people, though the clientele of this West End Cinema movie house was there too. It’s located in Georgetown and is a genuine art theater. It’s the place where we have seen European HD operas. They had The Anchor (about a working class woman English writer who died young, she lived in the equivalent of welfare projects in the UK up north); next week they’ll have a film about the use of ballet in opera; Izzy and I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams there two weeks ago. People applauded Scholem Aleichem at the end. However, we saw the film in the only theater in all the Maryland, Virginia and DC area it was playing in. The usual supposed art cinema (independent) Izzy and I go to was said to be having this film soon: Cinemart he calls his theater. He is about 2 blocks (NYC style) from a local Jewish Community Center (where Izzy nowadays goes for a social club she enjoys) and in May each year his theater has a festival of Jewish films half-hosted by the JCC but I can see he’s hedging because he really plays semi-popular films and if a film doesn’t get a big enough audience quickly, it vanishes from his theater.

Go see it if you can.


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