STARTING TOMORROW: In search of serious!

MONDAY, AUGUST 1, 2022

The Girl with the Lemonade Stand: Long ago and far away, Erich Auerbach wrote a highly-regarded book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Mimesis is still in print. For unknown reasons, our junior year in high school literature class was assigned to read and analyze one part of the difficult text. 

What the heck is Mimesis about? The leading authority on the book describes it in this manner:

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (German: Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur ) is a book of literary criticism by Erich Auerbach, and his most well known work. Written while Auerbach was teaching in Istanbul, Turkey, where he fled after being ousted from his professorship in Romance Philology at the University of Marburg by the Nazis in 1935, it was first published in 1946...

Mimesis opens with a comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer’s Odyssey and the way it appears in the Bible. From these two seminal Western texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature, including even the Modernist novelists writing at the time Auerbach began his study.

A unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature! For the record, it was that very opening chapter, concerning the Odyssey and the Old Testament, with which our class attempted to work, back in one of the last few years before the war in Vietnam fully hit.

That opening chapter is called Odysseus' Scar. In the words of the authority, "Auerbach begins with a close reading of brief excerpts from Homer in which, upon Odysseus’ homecoming, his old nursemaid Euryclea recognizes the hero by the scar on his thigh."

Let it be noted that Odysseus has been forced to return home in disguise, the better to beat back his wife's unruly suitors. Because twenty difficult years have passed, recognition would be extremely difficult if not for the scar on his thigh.

The faithful dog Argos knows him first. When Euryclea performs the ritual washing of feet, she startles at the familiar mark upon this stranger's leg:

Bending closer 
she started to bathe her master. Then, 
in a flash, she knew the scar
— 
that old wound 
made years ago by a boar's white tusk
when Odysseus 
went to Parnassus, out to see Autolycus and his sons... 
[Long flashback
That scar— 
as the old nurse cradled his leg and her hands passed down 
she felt it, knew it, suddenly let his foot fall
— 
down it dropped in the basin—the bronze clanged, 
tipping over, spilling water across the floor. 

For the record, Odysseus' life is put in danger when he's recognized by this faithful servant. We're offering you the translation by Professor Fagles.

According to Auerbach, the Greeks told their stories—represented reality—in one way; the architects of the Old Testament had a different approach. Over the weekend, those high school days leaped into our heads as we watched The Post, the Oscar-nominated 2017 film.

The Post was being offered for free by On Demand; we decided to give it a look. As we did, we marveled at the childish way Hollywood, at its highest level, had chosen to tell its story—had chosen to represent the reality of our own place and time.

The Post was nominated for Best Picture; it's also heavily larded with silly, improbable slapstick. If the film defines a genre, we'd call it "Saving Democracy Cute." We expect to offer examples as the week proceeds.

Critics praised The Post to the skies. As a guess, that may in part have been in deference to its famous director.

For ourselves, we thought of the Auerbach text as we observed the constant insertion of silly business into what was supposed to be a deeply serious bit of story-telling. We wondered if a culture which chooses to tell its important stories this way can really expect to survive.

The Post offers a somewhat unbalanced account of the way the so-called Pentagon Papers came to be published in 1971. Those top secret, classified documents offered a punishing historical account of the way the United States involved itself in the warfare in Indochina, eventually leading to the war in Vietnam. 

The film purports to concern at least two extremely serious topics—the vast importance of a free press, along with the emergence of women in public life during the era in question. 

That said, representational clowning is present throughout. That ranges from the messenger boys who keep coming within a whisker of getting run down by New York City taxicabs to the silly parading of The Adorable Ten-Year-Old Who's Running the Lemonade Stand.

True story! As we watched the highly-regarded film, we didn't remember who the director had been. We were so struck by the childish way The Post was representing reality that we put the film on pause and hurried away to check.

As it turns out, the film was directed by the Homer of our time. We were struck by the fact that such an august chronicler of contemporary American culture was telling this allegedly important story in this strangely unserious way. 

Also, we thought of the way certain stories are being told, right now today, within the upper-end press corps. We'll admit that the chronicling of "the Secret Service missing texts" came first to mind.

Critics praised The Post to the skies. We were struck by its insistence on a certain lack of seriousness. 

At the highest ends of our failing culture, are we able to "represent reality" in a serious way at the present time? Looking at our press corps' story-telling and at its attempts at analysis, we expect to fumble with this question all through the course of the week.

Tomorrow: "Whatever you are feeling is valid"


31 comments:


  1. Spielberg? Meh.

    ...and regardless, they haven't made anything worth watching in decades now, anyway. Tarantino, maybe...

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  2. Somerby coyly evades telling us that it was Spielberg who directed The Post. He then repeatedly calls scenes within it "childish" without a hint of why he feels that way. This was an oscar-nominated film but we are supposed to believe that it was childish, simply on Somerby's say-so? Without any explanation for why a lemonade stand might be silly?

    The news boys dodging taxis may be an homage to the way breaking news has been portrayed in past films, but there are very few lemonade stands in previous films -- these are not an icon of any sort, only a nostalgic reference to past middle class childhoods, in which many kids made lemonade and stood on lawns to sell it to passing community members. But what is the harm in it? Somerby doesn't explain at all. He just expects us to know his objections and to agree with them, because he says so.

    Generalizing from this film to today's press supposedly makes his feelings relevant, but again there is no explanation. Just an assertion and it is negative, as always.

    Somerby has become exceedingly lazy. He doesn't bother connecting the vague thoughts running through his head, nor does he relate them to anything else. This is his stream-of-consciousness dismissal of Spielberg and today's press and their reporting on those missing texts, without cause.

    And what was the point of mentioning an old textbook on representation of reality, if he never absorbed a concept from it that he is able to articulate today? Are we supposed to be impressed that he read the Odyssey? I did too, at around the same age. So what?

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    1. Well,,I guess you repeat the same nonsense about Trump and the people he hates at MSNBC every day, but it must get dull.

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    2. Now say something relevant to what I posted, why dontcha?

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    3. anon 10:17, you have a point. The owners of the TDH site should listen to its readers and think about getting someone new to replace the current bloggist, perhaps Rachel Maddow. We're paying good money for our subscriptions, and current blogster is out of sync with current liberal orthodoxy. Maybe if enough of us cancelled our subscription, the powers that be would take corrective action.

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    4. I simply asked Somerby to make sense. Is that really too much to ask?

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  3. Here is more of the Wikipedia article on Mimesis by Auerbach, which Somerby cribs from:

    "By far the most frequently reprinted chapter is chapter one, "Odysseus' Scar" in which Auerbach compares the scene in book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus finally returns home from his two decades of warring and journeying, to Genesis 22, the story of The Binding of Isaac. Highlighting the rhetorically determined simplicity of characters in the Odyssey (what he calls the "external") against what he regards as the psychological depth of the figures in the Old Testament, Auerbach suggests that the Old Testament gives a more powerful and historical impression than the Odyssey, which he classifies as closer to "legend" in which all details are leisurely fleshed out and all actions occur in a simple present – indeed even flashbacks are narrated in the present tense.

    Auerbach summarizes his comparison of the texts as follows:

    'The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand [The Odyssey 's] fully externalized description, uniform illustration, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand [in the Old Testament], certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, "background" quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic.'

    Auerbach concludes by arguing that the "full development" of these two styles, the rhetorical tradition with its constraints on representing reality and the Biblical or "realist" tradition with its engagement of everyday experience, exercised a "determining influence upon the representation of reality in European literature."

    It is in the context of this comparison between the Biblical and the Homeric that Auerbach draws his famous conclusion that the Bible's claim to truth is "tyrannical," since

    'What he [the writer of the Old Testament] produced then, was not primarily oriented towards "realism" (if he succeeded in being realistic, it was merely a means, not an end): it was oriented to truth.'"
    --------------------------
    There is a reference to "seriousness" by Auerbach, but both texts are presumably serious while using different ways of depicting reality, one that tells all in a narrative style (the Odyssey), the other that hints through implication, symbolism, requires interpretation and leaves much to the reader while describing truth (the Bible).

    Somerby doesn't take the next step and apply this concept to the texts (which are not a work of literature but a real-life situation in which not all is known and thus can be told in Homer's fashion. Is journalism really eligible to be analyzed as a work of fiction? I don't think so. For one thing, it is not the creation of a single mind and is not being written at a single point in time with an infinity of choices available to the writer. It is description of that external reality, like Homer, which emerged from tales told via an oral tradition intended to preserve events. Film is something else again. Somerby shows no respect for such differences.

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  4. The Pentagon Papers were an early exposure of our institutions being ineffective and lying to the public. They were shocking at the time. Today, a comparable report would be less shocking, because most of us have already lost confidence in our institutions. In particular, the two sides involved in the Pentagon Papers -- the government and the media -- have low confidence today.

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    1. The Pentagon Papers were an act of civil disobedience in which Daniel Ellsberg revealed to the public what was being lied about and kept from us by politicians and the military. I don't see that as necessarily a failure of institutions as much as individuals.

      Ellsberg was an activist anti-war priest, not a member of the media or the military. The NY Times decided to publish excerpts of the papers because it felt that the public should know what was being concealed with respect to the war.

      I can see that the public might have lost confidence in the government because of the secrecy, but how would the public lose confidence in the media? The media wasn't keeping secrets -- it revealed them, doing what it is supposed to do.

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    2. An activist anti-war priest? Daniel Ellsberg or Daniel Berrigan?

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    3. Sorry, you are correct. Got them confused.

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    4. Daniel Ellsberg worked for the Rand Corporation, a defense contractor (among other research activities).

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    5. @11:00 Yes, that's what I meant. The Pentagon Papers generated some loss of confidence in our military. If anything, that incident increase confidence in the media.

      The current loss of confidence in our media came later. It's striking how quickly the media managed to ruin their reputation.

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    6. The Bush/ Cheney wars damaged the confidence in our media, which supported it for the dollars, and the military, which was fought to a six-year standstill by a handful of Iraqi teenagers.

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    7. David, let me help you out, jerkoff.
      Rupert Murdoch/Roger Ailes.
      It's "striking", huh.

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  5. "At the highest ends of our failing culture, are we able to "represent reality" in a serious way at the present time? "

    What does Somerby even mean when he says "serious"? Is it the job of journalists to "represent reality" or do they repeat words other people have said while placing them in the context of events that have happened?

    Why does Somerby continue to distinguish between journalists who are reporters and the analysts, cable hosts, experts and guests who "interpret" reality? If reality does not reveal itself to us in a external narrative stream but is more like the truth of the Bible, it is left to others to inrepret the meaning of what is reported, and that requires some inference and explanation of what is background. Why does Somerby complain so much about those who provide that service?

    Further, why does Somerby pretend that all is Homeric narrative and nothing can be or should be interpreted, as in Biblical scholarship? Somerby lives in the superficial. He doesn't do implication. He avoids considering context. That makes him ahistorical and presentist, as contrasted with what Auerbach calls historicism. But where does his concern with childishness come from? What is childish about the feelings of anyone these days concerning those secret service texts, the subversion of democracy and the attempted coup in our own times? This is very serious and not at all like any "lemonade stand," an extraneous reference Somerby throws in to confuse his readers about what is wrong with today's journalism.

    Somerby pretends seriousness with his literary critic nostalgia, but he isn't actually thinking about what Auerbach said, much less thinking about our current problem retrieving those texts, but he has managed to convey a dislike of Spielberg and the media, without actually telling us what any of them did wrong -- other than depicting newsboys dodging taxis. As if that never happened.

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  6. From Political Wire:

    "“Jill and I send our thoughts to President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump for a swift recovery. We will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.”

    — Joe Biden, on Oct 2, 2020.

    “Joe Biden’s second bout of Covid, sometimes referred to as the China Virus, was sadly misdiagnosed by his doctors. He instead has Dementia, but is happily recovering well. Joe is thinking of moving, part time, to one of those beautiful Wisconsin Nursing Homes, where almost 100% of the residents miraculously, and for the first time in history, had the strength and energy to vote even if those votes were cast illegally. Get well soon, Joe!”

    — Donald Trump, on July 31, 2022."

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    1. Trump was in danger of dying because he had a dangerous strain of a virus. Biden is not because he has a different form of the virus no more dangerous than a cold.

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    2. But surely a fella vaccinated at least a dozen times by the Best in the World $100 Billion Worth Pfizer vaccine can't have Covid.

      Obviously, he was misdiagnosed, dear government scientist.

      As for his dementia, that's not even controversial...

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    3. Trump can't be civil because the president has a cold?

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    4. Trump can’t be civil.

      There. FIFY.

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  7. I'll be voting for Jill Stein in 2024.

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  8. "STARTING TOMORROW: In search of serious!"

    It is plainly an insult if Somerby doesn't consider our current situation serious. More than that, it suggests dementia or mental illness on Somerby's part.

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  9. “That said, representational clowning is present throughout. That ranges from the messenger boys who keep coming within a whisker of getting run down by New York City taxicabs to the silly parading of The Adorable Ten-Year-Old Who's Running the Lemonade Stand.”

    Spielberg is giving his audience a sense of the time and place. And things like ten year olds with lemonade stands were part of that. Shakespeare fills his “serious” plays with comical, clownish characters and events, because he knows that not everyone at a given moment in history was a grim, dour, brooding nihilist. The Vietnam War was going on in 1971, the threat of nuclear annihilation was still with us, but people still watched silly TV comedies.

    But more than that, Spielberg is portraying a society, perhaps a bygone one, where traditional things like kids with lemonade stands existed alongside institutions, like the press, that did the right thing, in this case publicizing the Pentagon Papers, despite the interrelationships, clearly depicted in the film, of the newspaper publishers and administration officials.

    Spielberg’s view is a typically positive one in which America gets it right, or at least used to, and in which there are good people who make the right decisions, even when subjected to conflicting pressures.

    It’s the same impulse that leads him to make a Holocaust picture about a man, a single individual, who did the right thing, despite the pressure to do otherwise.

    You can call this an unserious approach to the Holocaust, and so be it. But Spielberg’s interest is the good that people do, not the evil.

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  10. “In search of serious!”

    I’m not holding my breath that Somerby is going to be looking in the right places.

    However, I’m pretty sure he’ll continue to moan about Morning Joe and tell us that Tucker Carlson sometimes gets it right.

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  11. It's a myth that we ever needed Hispanics in the first place.

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  12. “The Post” was a conventional mainstream liberal picture about our recent history. I remember getting weary that it hit the same points over and over. These films usually get some dutiful critical thumbs up and are quickly forgotten, even when they turn out to be better than expected like Robert Redford’s terrific “Quiz Show.” That’s movie about the crisis of our modern unseriousness. Once Bob fought the good fight in that battle, now he has joined the mob.
    Why Bob is writing about “The Post” today is puzzling but at least we can have a little empathy. The US is careening into a savage Chaos, it will fry most of us, Bob’s brain just looks like an early casualty.

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  13. I read The Odyssey for the first not too long ago.

    I “wasted” half the day rereading via Bob’s link. I had read a different translation, not nearly as good as this one! Love love love it!

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  14. As it happens my wife and I are rewatching some films based on true events--would be interested in your comparison/ratings: Spotlight; Margin Call, The Big Short, Money Ball.

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