Archive for October, 2008
The term “hysterical realism” (also called recherché postmodernism or maximalism) was coined by prominent literary critic James Wood, in a review of Zadie Smith’s, White Teeth (2000), which appeared in The New Republic on July 24, 2000. In the essay, entitled “Human, All Too Human,” Woods criticizes Smith’s ambitious debut novel, which explores the themes of identity and memory in contemporary multi-cultural London. Notably, Woods uses his review of Teeth as an opportunity to lament the rise to prominence of the “[b]ig, ambitious novel” in the literary world. He derisively describes these works as, “[a] perpetual-motion machine that appears to be embarrassed into velocity….The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.”
Woods cites authors Don DeLillo (Underworld) and Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon) as the founding fathers of hysterical realism, whose fact-stuffed and sprawling style inspired countless imitators, including such critical darlings as: Dave Eggers (A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius); the late David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest); Salman Rushdie (The Ground Beneath Her Feet); Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) and Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), to name a few. Woods identifies DeLillo’s, Underworld (1997), as hysterical realism’s muse du jour. This sprawling, 828-page opus spans from the 1950s-1990s and fully incorporates real life historical events (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear proliferation), into the characters’ thoughts, actions and feelings. Underworld and its literary progeny can be distinguished by their length (Jest clocks in at 1,079-pages), preoccupation with data (Wallace’s footnote fetish, Pynchon’s depiction of 18th Century land surveys), stylistic riffs (Eggers’ use of “creative non-fiction”) and experimentation with form and voice (Smith’s multicultural London). All of these novels are overtly (if not overly) smart.
For her part, Smith gracefully defended herself (and other writers lumped together under the genre) in her piece “This is how it feels to Me,” which appeared in The Guardian on October 13, 2001. She praised her fellow hysterical realists by noting that these authors attempt to straddle “[b]oth sides of the equation—brain and heart—present in their fiction.” Moreover, she makes the point that novelists have always been a product of their times, and that man vs. mass media is a defining conflict of modernity, stating, “[w]riters do not write what they want, they write what they can. When I was 21 I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” Notably, most of the authors that Wood’s cites as exemplars, such as Isaac Babel, Italo Svevo and Giovanni Verga, were people who lived before the onset of mass media; it is easier to create an “intimate” setting when the geographical and philosophical reach of your characters is necessarily proscribed and they are free from the influence of Television and the Internet.
1 Comment »
In 1980, Stanley Kubrick released the horror classic The Shining, an adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel of the same name (1977). It was Kubrick’s first movie since his ambitious period piece Barry Lyndon (1975) had flopped at the U.S. box office, and he reportedly wanted to make a more commercially viable movie for his follow-up project. It starred Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, an alcoholic novelist afflicted with crippling writer’s block, who fatefully accepts a job as an off-season caretaker of the haunted Overlook Hotel, a remote resort nestled in the Colorado Mountains. He moves to the Hotel with his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), who possesses the gift of telepathy—the “shining” referred to in the title. As the winter deepens, the ghostly inhabitants of the hotel gradually close in on the vulnerable family, culminating in Jack’s descent into homicidal madness.
In explaining why he chose to adapt The Shining, Kubrick effusively praised the novel, stating in an interview that, “[i]t seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural world would eventually be explained by the psychological.” Interestingly, King was “dreadfully upset” with Kubrick’s adaptation, even going so far as to publicly denounce the director as “[a] man who thinks too much and feels too little.” This was an unusual reaction from the writer, who has consistently claimed to be unconcerned with the fidelity of the movie adaptations of his novels, often referring to them as, “[a]pples and oranges, both delicious, but very different.”
The troubles between the two men began with Kubrick’s desire to cast Jack Nicholson in the lead role, which King tried to talk the director out of, suggesting John Voigt or Michael Moriarty instead. King felt that the role of Jack Torrance required an everyman (which Nicholson was inarguably not), in order to make his final descent into madness that much more unnerving. King also felt that the important themes of his novel, such as the destructive effects of Jack’s alcoholism on his family, were overlooked in favor of the supernatural demons that populated the hotel. However, King has recently admitted that he was struggling with alcoholism and feelings of unprovoked rage towards his family at the time that he wrote The Shining. This might help account for his aversion to Kubrick’s adaptation, as much of the novel was very personal to the author, if not autobiographical.
King had the opportunity to remake The Shining himself in 1997, with a TV movie adaptation of the novel which he wrote and produced. Sadly for King, his adaptation was universally panned and considered vastly inferior to Kubrick version. Like many of Kubrick’s films, The Shining initially garnered mixed reviews from critics, but has become widely regarded as a masterpiece of the horror genre.
1 Comment »
Nineteen eighty-three was the year that saw the U.S. Embassy bombed in Beirut (killing 63 people), Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in Britain, McDonald’s introduction of the Chicken McNugget and the broadcast of Michael Jackson’s landmark “Thriller” video. It was also the year that the yarn-haired, plump-cheeked and bug-eyed Cabbage Patch Kid dolls took the toy market by storm, setting off a nationwide melee at toy stores as the “must have” gift of the Christmas season.
These derrière-tattooed dolls (the signature of their inventor, Xavier Roberts, was printed on each doll) inspired a passionate fervor never before seen in toy history. Reports of crazed parents fighting, screaming, clawing and scratching each other in the aisles of toy stores blanketed the nightly news. By Christmas, the demand for the highly coveted dolls had far outstripped supply, and some stores had to call in the police to control the restless mobs of angry shoppers. Incredibly, a Milwaukee radio DJ famously convinced two dozen of people to stand in Milwaukee County Stadium, with credit cards raised to the sky, for the opportunity to vie for the spoils of an airborne delivery of 2,000 Cabbage Patch Kids.
The Cabbage Patch Kids craze hit a fevered pitch when Mary Toole, a Sioux Falls mother of two, held up her local Toys R’ Us store with a spork and a BB Gun, demanding a doll for her daughter. Luckily, only two people were injured in the hijacking, but holiday toy shopping had forever lost its innocence. Other notable toy crazes include the “Elmo-mania” of Christmas 1996, which left two moms, one dad and a Walmart sales clerk in critical condition after they were trampled in a frenzied dash for the giggly plush toy. According to People magazine, the hapless clerk, “suffered a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw and knee, a broken rib and a concussion.” However, nothing could quite top the Furby frenzy of 1998, which prompted two known suicides, a shootout and a million dollar lawsuit in its gruesome wake.
What Do You Think? »
On August 6, 1945, U.S. President Harry S. Truman authorized the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively concluding six months of intensive fire-bombing of some sixty-seven other Japanese cities. Never one to tarry and determined to finally end the War, Truman ordered the dropping of the nuclear weapon, “Little Boy” on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by the detonation of “Fat Man” over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. These two bombs killed an estimated 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki by the end of 1945 (approximately half of the casualties occurred immediately). The remaining fatalities that year are variously attributed to radiation sickness, burns and the lack of medical resources available to survivors. Moreover, thousands of those lucky enough to have survived the bombing and its immediate aftermath eventually succumbed to radiation-induced cancer and other related illnesses.
The Japanese call the survivors of the bombings Hibakusha, which literally translates to “explosion-affected people.” In the chaos that ensued immediately after the bombing, the Hibakusha were forced to cope with the overwhelming loss of life, physical devastation, guilt and fears of the lasting effects of radiation exposure. Puzzlingly, while both the short-term and long-term physical effects of the bombing have been extensively studied, research regarding the psychological impact on the Hibakusha has been limited. The first reported psychological study was conducted in November 1945, on fifty randomly chosen hospital inpatients who had survived the bombing of Nagasaki. The study reached the highly questionable conclusion that only four of the test subjects suffered from any appreciable mental disorders. Many contemporary psychologists explain these dubious findings by pointing out that the interviewees were still “in shock” when this study was conducted. Dazed and emotionally numb, many of the subjects of this study could not recall their initial reaction to the explosion, or even provide a satisfactory visual description.
Since the 1945 study, psychological research on the Hibakusha has been limited. This is attributed in part to the fact that the symptoms commonly complained of by survivors- including general fatigue, amnesia, a lack of concentration, the sensation of burning or chill, an increased sense of unresponsiveness and immobility-closely resemble the effects of radiation exposure. This made it difficult for researchers to determine the extent of which symptoms were actually psychological and which were from radiation sickness. However, the recent identification and interest in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has renewed interest in studying the emotional fallout of the bombing on the Hibakusha. (PTSD) is a psychological condition that is prompted by the traumatic experience of great terror, such as a natural disaster, warfare or physical assault. Contemporary psychologists studying the Hibakusha hope that their research will provide insight into the progression of PTSD over time, and better help them identify and treat sufferers of the disorder.
What Do You Think? »
William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher famous for advancing the philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatists consider practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of both meaning and truth. James’s asserted that the value of a truth depends upon its use to the individual, and that scientific empiricism is inherently limited in its ability to accurately account for the breadth of diverse and subjective individual experiences. In order to account for the inevitable variations in subjective experience, James developed the doctrine of “radical empiricism.” Radical empiricism differs from everyday scientific empiricism, in that it presumes that nature and experience can never be isolated for absolutely objective analysis, and that the mind of the observer will affect the outcome of any empirical approach to truth since, empirically, the mind and nature are inextricably linked in the individual.
James was also fascinated with the study of “mystical experience,” and as such, experimented with various mind-altering substances available at the time, including chloral hydrate (1870), amyl nitrite (1875), nitrous oxide (1882), and even peyote (1896). He was especially fond of the consciousness-expanding powers of nitrous oxide, (commonly known today as “laughing gas”) claiming the effects of the giggle-inducing vapor allowed him to finally understand Hegel (not surprising, in light of the oft-repeated criticism that Hegel’s writings are the most obscure of the major philosophers). However, people were not aware at the time that inhaling Nitrous oxide (N2O) in conjunction with amyl nitrite (otherwise known as “poppers” is an extremely dangerous Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant (and kills an alarming number of brain cells). While inhaling “poppers” creates a pleasurable dissociative sensation and causes analgesia, depersonalization, derealization, dizziness, euphoria, and some sound distortion, it acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant that, combined with the drop in blood pressure (characteristic of nitrite inhalant use), may cause hypotension, unconsciousness, or, in the case of extreme overdose, death.
What Do You Think? »
The Academy Awards, popularly known as “The Oscars”, are awards of merit presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to recognize excellence of professionals in the film industry, including directors, actors, and writers. Unlike the universally reviled Grammy Awards for “excellence” in music, both film critics and the public alike have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars, simultaneously trashing Hollywood’s yearly orgy of self-congratulations while breathlessly wagering bets on the likely winners. It should then come as little surprise that only two actors in Academy Award history have ever declined the highly coveted statuette: George C. Scott for his role as General George S. Patton, Jr. in Patton (1970) and Marlon Brando for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972).
Prior to his rejection of his Best Actor Oscar for Patton, George C. Scott quietly turned down two Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor, first for his role as a wily prosecutor opposite Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and then for his role in The Hustler (1961) opposite Paul Newman. When Scott won the Academy Award for Best Actor in Patton, widely considered one of the greatest performances in cinematic history, Scott sent the Academy a telegram, politely declining the award. It stated in part, “[I] mean no offense to the Academy. I simply do not wish to be involved.” However, Scott was less tactful with his criticism elsewhere, declaring the awards, “[a] goddamned meat parade… I don’t want any part of it.”
Never one to be outdone, Brando declined his Oscar for Best Actor for The Godfather by sending Native American Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather (a/k/a Maria Cruz) as his surrogate to explain his reasons for boycotting the ceremony, which were based on his opposition to the depiction of Native Americans in cinema. Decked out in full Apache regalia, the former “Miss American Vampire” (1970) was prepared to read Brando’s fifteen-page prepared speech, but was thwarted by a producer she met backstage, who threatened to have her physically removed from the stage and arrested if she spoke for more than 45 seconds. Littlefeather thus improvised her statements on stage, and then read the full text of the speech to the press afterward. To this day, no one knows for sure what happened to Brando’s Oscar statuette…
What Do You Think? »
Alfred Charles Kinsey (June 23, 1894 – August 25, 1956), was an American biologist and professor of entomology and zoology at Indiana University, famous for penning the highly controversial Kinsey Reports on human sexual behavior, published in two volumes entitled, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). The publication of the taboo-shredding Sexual Behavior in the Human Male ignited a firestorm of controversy so heated that Kinsey’s findings still rankle conservatives more than half a century later. Kinsey’s results, which he gathered by conducting confidential interviews, challenged the prevailing sexual orthodoxy of the time: he bluntly told America that non-marital sex is a national pastime; that women could also achieve orgasm; and that homosexuality and masturbation do not lead to insanity.
Despite the controversy, the Kinsey Reports stormed the culture and attracted heavy media attention, with a Time magazine cover story even likening their impact to Margaret Mitchell’s beloved Gone with the Wind (1937). Kinsey’s influence was so pervasive, in fact, that Cole Porter immortalized Kinsey’s cultural impact in the pop classic Too Darn Hot (1948). Even though a Gallup poll taken at the time found that three-quarters of the public approved of Kinsey’s work, many conservatives were outraged by his study. Billy Graham ominously predicted that the Kinsey Reports were a death knell of “[t]he already deteriorating morals of America.” In fact, conservative opposition was so strong that even the liberal New York Times declined at first to advertise the book.
Despite its enduring influence on contemporary sexual mores, the Kinsey Reports are still vociferously criticized by many conservatives as moral scourge, encouraging deviant sexual behavior and promoting promiscuity. In 1999, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male found itself ranked #3, (and lumped under the category of “The Very Worst”) on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s (ISI) list of The 50 Worst Books of the Twentieth Century. Established in 1953 with the then-young William F. Buckley as its first president, ISI is a non-profit educational institution known for its distinctly conservative views. ISI witheringly described Kinsey’s findings as, “[a] pervert’s attempt to demonstrate that perversion is sexually ‘normal.’” In May 2005, conservative website Human Events ranked Sexual Behavior in the Human Male #4 on their Ten Most Harmful Books of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries list, asserting that the, “[r]eports were designed to give a scientific gloss to the normalization of promiscuity and deviancy.” However, despite the enduring conservative uproar over the Kinsey Reports, his research has made a profound and indelible impact on American attitudes towards sexuality. In fact, many cultural historians maintain that his findings were a key factor in sparking the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.
What Do You Think? »