Part 1—Gong-show at The New Yorker: Janet Malcolm has had a major career. In truth, that's the heart of the problem.
Today, at age 83, the long-time star of The New Yorker has written a lengthy profile of TV's Rachel Maddow. The profile appears in the magazine's current edition, packaged for public consumption in two different ways.
On-line, the profile appears beneath this easy-reader headline:
"Rachel Maddow: Trump’s TV Nemesis"Is Rachel Maddow "Trump’s TV Nemesis?" In fact, Malcolm's profile doesn't devote its major focus to establishing any such claim. We'll take a guess:
That seems to be a dumbed-down, easily-processed framework, designed for the rubes on-line.
In hard copy, where the magazine's extremely bright subscribers dwell, the profile carries a different set of headlines, creating a different framework. This is the way the profile is framed if you carry the magazine around in your smart little hands:
THE STORYTELLEREven after reading the profile, we can't say we're entirely sure what that implied promise is supposed to mean. That said, Malcolm goes on and on in her profile about Maddow's "extraordinary storytelling," her "acute storyteller's instincts."
How Rachel Maddow constructs a narrative.
"How Rachel Maddow constructs a narrative?" We can't really say that we know why the hard-copy headline says that. But fairly early in the profile, Malcolm says she's handing us a "lesson in comparative narratology," a largely unknown department of learning at which Malcolm seems to feel skilled.
Rather plainly, Maddow's transplendent storytelling is meant to be the focus of Malcolm's piece, which goes on and on, and on and on, and helps define the existential problem with which our world is now faced.
That said, what the heck is narratology? We're receiving a lesson in the comparative form of the art. What is the art in question?
Rightly or wrongly, narratology is one of the world's less recognized fields of study. According to the Nexis archive, the word has appeared only five times in the New York Times in the past ten years, and never in the Washington Post. Two of the usages in the Times could be scored as mocking.
That said, let's be fair! Narratology has long been a subject of substantial study among the Dylanesque jugglers and clowns also known as the savants and eggheads. Just to give you a rough idea of the sweep of the field, the leading authority on narratology offers such pensees as these:
Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception. While in principle the word may refer to any systematic study of narrative, in practice its usage is rather more restricted. It is an anglicisation of French narratologie, coined by Tzvetan Todorov (Grammaire du Décaméron, 1969). Narratology is applied retrospectively as well to work predating its coinage. Its theoretical lineage is traceable to Aristotle (Poetics) but modern narratology is agreed to have begun with the Russian Formalists, particularly Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale, 1928), and Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of heteroglossia, dialogism, and the chronotope first presented in The Dialogic Imagination (1975).Is narratology really derived from stucturalism and semiotics, as the Britannica claims? In a sense, but not as such! At any rate, the current New Yorker offers a gong show-inspired lesson in the comparative version of same.
The origins of narratology lend to it a strong association with the structuralist quest for a formal system of useful description applicable to any narrative content, by analogy with the grammars used as a basis for parsing sentences in some forms of linguistics. This procedure does not however typify all work described as narratological today; Percy Lubbock's work in point of view (The Craft of Fiction, 1921) offers a case in point.
In 1966 a special issue of the journal Communications proved highly influential, becoming considered a program for research into the field and even a manifesto. It included articles by Barthes, Claude Brémond, Genette, Greimas, Todorov and others, which in turn often referred to the works of Vladimir Propp (1895-1970).
Jonathan Culler (2001) describes narratology as comprising many strands "implicitly united in the recognition that narrative theory requires a distinction between 'story,' a sequence of actions or events conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse, and 'discourse,' the discursive presentation or narration of events."
The Russian Formalists first proposed such a distinction, employing the couplet fabula and sujet. A subsequent succession of alternate pairings has preserved the essential binomial impulse, e.g. histoire/discours, histoire/récit, story/plot. The Structuralist assumption that one can investigate fabula and sujet separately gave birth to two quite different traditions: thematic (Propp, Bremond, Greimas, Dundes, et al.) and modal (Genette, Prince, et al.) narratology. The former is mainly limited to a semiotic formalization of the sequences of the actions told, while the latter examines the manner of their telling, stressing voice, point of view, transformation of the chronological order, rhythm and frequency. Many authors (Sternberg, 1993, Ricoeur, 1984, and Baroni, 2007) have insisted that thematic and modal narratology should not be looked at separately, especially when dealing with the function and interest of narrative sequence and plot.
As noted, Malcolm has had a major journalistic career, stretching through several well-known controversies. Her best-known work, a pair of long New Yorker essays which were published as a short book in 1990, begins with a claim which, by any normal interpretive standard, is baldly absurd on its face.
The essays, and the book, were called The Journalist and the Murderer. We'll visit Malcolm's baldly absurd opening statement before the week is done.
Concerning a separate matter, two different juries in the 1990s found that Malcolm had invented quotes about the subject of a profile, a bad sport who decided to sue. In the autumn of 94, the New York Times reported the second verdict, while recalling the first:
MARGOLICK (11/3/94): A jury in Federal District Court here may have finally ended the long-running saga of Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey M. Masson. It ruled today that while two of five disputed quotations Ms. Malcolm attributed to Mr. Masson in a 1983 profile of the psychoanalyst in The New Yorker magazine were false and one of those was defamatory, none were written with the recklessness required for libel.Did two juries draw such conclusions? That doesn't necessarily mean that their conclusions were true!
The verdict, from a panel of seven women and one man, culminated—and may well conclude—nearly 10 years of litigation in which the case reached the United States Supreme Court once and juries twice, consumed a fortune in legal fees and triggered a debate over what constitutes quotations and the license reporters may take with them.
In 1993, another jury concluded that Ms. Malcolm had fabricated the five statements attributed to Mr. Masson and that he had been libeled by two of them. But it deadlocked on damages, with some seeking to award Mr. Masson (pronounced MAY-sun) $1 million and others deeming him so sullied by his braggadocio that he could not be further damaged. That led Judge Eugene F. Lynch of Federal District Court here to order a second trial.
This time, after three days of deliberation, the jury found that only two of the quotations were falsified and only one was defamatory.
That said, just five days after that Times report, Newt Gingrich's pseudoscandal-fueled Contract With America turned the House of Representatives over to the GOP for the first time in forty years. While Rome was burning, our greatest journalistic institutions were otherwise consumed.
Out of all this turmoil and tumult came Malcolm's reputation as one of our headiest brainiacs. As recently as 2013, a writer at Slate was headlining her as "the country’s best magazine writer."
Today, as Malcolm scrapes 83, we hardly need a duly empanelled jury to help us reach a verdict on her work, and by extension on the upper-end journalistic elite whose lazy, bumbling, fatuous conduct has finally brought us, after all these decades, across the river and into the land controlled by Donald J. Trump.
We hardly need an American jury to reach a verdict on Malcolm's current work and, by extension, on the judgment and acumen of the gaggle at David Remnick's New Yorker. If you can read the first three paragraphs of Malcolm's doting profile of Maddow without thinking that Malcolm seems to be out of her head, we'd have to suggest that our nation's existential peril tracks directly back to you, perhaps to your tribal loyalty.
Janet Malcolm is a major fan of Rachel Maddow—more specifically, of the transplendent storytelling on Maddow's eponymous show. In the first paragraph of her report, she makes some claims about Madddow's on-air wardrobe. These claims seem to contradict Maddow's persistent representations about her frumpy, $19 blazers. They also seem to be claims which Malcolm can't know to be true.
Whatever! So far, so pointless and silly! But after that, in grafs 2 and 3, Malcolm proceeds to the text we've posted below. If you can't see, or at least suspect, that something is badly wrong here, our nation's spectacular, dangerous failure leads straight back to you:
MALCOLM (10/9/17): Maddow is widely praised for the atmosphere of cheerful civility and accessible braininess that surrounds her stage persona. She is onstage, certainly, and makes no bones about being so. She regularly reminds us of the singularity of her show (“You will hear this nowhere else”; “Very important interview coming up, stay with us”; “Big show coming up tonight”). Like a carnival barker, she leads us on with tantalizing hints about what is inside the tent.How big a fan of the Maddow Show is this fixture of upper-class Manhattan establishment "journalism?" This big—she says she's so mesmerized by the TV star's performance that she "stays and dumbly watches the commercials" instead of doing something more useful when the multimillionaire corporate star takes her commercial breaks.
As I write this, I think of something that subliminally puzzles me as I watch the show. Why do I stay and dumbly watch the commercials instead of getting up to finish washing the dishes? By now, I know every one of the commercials as well as I know the national anthem: the Cialis ad with curtains blowing as the lovers phonily embrace, the ad with the guy who has opioid-induced . . . constipation (I love the delicacy-induced pause), the ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance in which the woman jeers at the coverage offered by a rival company: “What are you supposed to do, drive three-quarters of a car?” I sit there mesmerized because Maddow has already mesmerized me. Her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV. “The Rachel Maddow Show” is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show. It is TV entertainment at its finest. It permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives.
As a result of this mystification, Malcolm says she isn't a fan of Maddow alone. She's also a fan of the constipation ad which frequently airs, especially of the "delicacy-induced pause" she especially loves.
She says that she has memorized the Cialis ad, along with all the rest of the ads, which she sits and "dumbly watches" each night, waiting for Rachel to reappear.
It isn't just Maddow whom she loves! As Malcolm sits there dumbly watching each night, "her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV."
This is the mental world which now obtains at Gotham's world-famous journalistic salon. Are you willing to form the impression that something here seems to be wrong?
Once again, we'll remind you that Malcolm is a major figure within our failing nation's upper-class, upper-end journalism guild. We'll also note that, in these first three paragraphs, Malcolm notes the same basic facts we've long noted about the Maddow Show.
Malcolm has said that Maddow's show is "a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show." She has said that Maddow's show is "TV entertainment at its finest," presented for a specific purpose—presented so "liberals can enjoy themselves" during these grisly times.
Those are precisely the claims we've made about Maddow's gruesome program. Remarkably, though, Malcolm offers these observations as items of praise, not as condemnations or even as complaints.
We're going to spend the rest of the week discussing Malcolm's weird performance in this profile. Along the way, we'll link it to addled breakdowns of other totems of our upper-class "liberal" world.
We'll talk about the endless array of con men who have conned our liberal rank and file, Weinstein and Bloom among them. We'll talk about Remnick, now and then. We'll revisit Maddow's program itself. We'll talk about the way our tolerance for these figures has taken us to our current eve of destruction.
As we talk about these matters, a major star at a major journal will be "dumbly watching" those constipation/Cialis ads. If you still can't see, in the face of this evidence, that something is badly wrong Over Here, then we must say, though not as a moral rebuke:
The world is finally too much with you! You are simply unable to see the deeply dangerous way we liberals have utterly failed.
Tomorrow: "Easily visible from space," and narratologically nuts