Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers's America's Forgotten Majority has been credited with convincing Al Gore last summer to adopt a populist campaign strategy built around "working families" and the mantra, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people." Republicans immediately accused the Vice President of "class warfare," and Business Week worried that Gore's rhetoric was tapping into a broad "anti-business" public mood. Pundits thought (or hoped) there would be a backlash among "suburban independents," but thus far none is visible.
Though Gore is a highly ambiguous class warrior and has skillfully targeted only the most egregious (and unpopular) corporate powers, this is a bold and welcome turn toward class politics in the United States. And though Ralph Nader and the revitalized political operations of the AFL-CIO undoubtedly deserve some credit too, there's a chance that Teixeira and Rogers have helped do for the Democrats what Kevin Phillips's "Southern strategy" did for the Republicans in 1968 and beyond.
What have they done? Simply pointed out what Michael Zweig calls "America's Best Kept Secret"--that the majority of Americans are "working class," not "middle class," and that failing to realize that simple fact leads to a cascade of illusions, both political and otherwise. This is the larger point that will endure, regardless of how Gore's populist strategy works in November (if, indeed, he sustains it until then). We cannot get our politics right, or our economics and culture, for that matter, until we have a better, more consistent grasp of the vagaries of class in our society. America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters and The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, each very different in its concepts and details, lay a strong social-scientific foundation for bringing social class out of the closet and making it a permanent part of our public discourse.
Teixeira and Rogers's contribution lies most completely in their political arithmetic, which emphasizes the importance of class and unionism as well as race and gender. When they extend from that, their sense of what they call core working-class values is thinner and less accurate, in my view, and their policy prescriptions are too narrowly focused on this year's election and contain what would be a crucial strategic error if put into practice. But their arithmetic is clear and compelling, and Zweig complements and strengthens their analysis in the other areas.
The arithmetic begins by dividing voters into a "middle class" and a "working class," based on one clear and simple characteristic--the possession or lack of a bachelor's degree. About 30 percent of voters have one, while the vast majority (the working class) do not. Teixeira and Rogers understand that both income and occupation are also relevant to understanding class dynamics, but information on them is not consistently available in the voting data, and, besides, there is such a strong correlation between college education, occupation and income that it doesn't matter much for their purposes. "Managerial and professional workers," for example, are much more likely to have bachelor's degrees and are paid from 34 percent to 140 percent better than other workers; they, like the "college-educated," with whom they overlap so strongly, are about 30 percent of the labor force.
Teixeira and Rogers next divide voters into the Democratic base (union households, blacks and Hispanics) and, by implication, the Republican base (nonunion whites). In 1996 the Democratic base constituted one-third of voters, while nonunion whites made up the other two-thirds of the electorate; the base voted 66 percent Democratic, while the much larger group of nonunion whites gave Democrats about 40 percent of their vote. This combination was enough for Clinton to win without a majority, but the basic arithmetic condemns Democrats to a hard struggle to get from marginality to deadlock, at best, until they can win at least half of the white, nonunion working-class vote. Thus, the subtitle "Why the White Working Class Still Matters," to which should have been added "Particularly the Nonunion Part."
This calculus gets trickier and trickier, but the payoff is worth it. When Zweig speaks of a "working-class majority" based on occupation, he includes white, black and Hispanic, both union and nonunion. Teixeira and Rogers emphasize this same overwhelming working-class majority, but what they most often refer to as "the Forgotten Majority" is not truly one: Once all blacks, Hispanics and union whites (groups that contain large working-class majorities) have been set aside as part of the Democratic base, this Forgotten Majority--white nonunion workers without a bachelor's degree--is actually only 45 percent. But this does make them the single largest group in the electorate, and, what's more, they are the real swing vote in US politics today. Using 1996 figures, Teixeira and Rogers's map of the electorate looks like this:
This breakdown of the electorate is the single most valuable aspect of America's Forgotten Majority. The nonunion white working class is such an enormous part of the voting populace that, though an important part of the Republican base, it produced more Democratic votes than any other group of voters. Gaining a percentage point among the Forgotten Majority, then, is worth more, numerically, than two or three points among any other voter group. (In a tactic that has helped win them mainstream attention, Teixeira and Rogers laboriously show how the Republican, Reform and Green parties might win the Forgotten Majority, but their main analytical effort is directed at Democrats.)
Teixeira and Rogers are primarily geared to argue against the New Democrat notion of suburban "soccer moms" and "wired workers" as the crucial swing vote in US politics. They show conclusively that this group (the college-educated) is simply too small and not volatile enough to constitute the key "suburban independent." White, nonunion, college-educated men are, in fact, the immovable base of the GOP, nearly as solidly and consistently Republican for the past half-century as black voters have been for the Democrats. White, nonunion, college-educated women represent more appealing ground--indeed, they've been an important part of what's kept the Democrats competitive for the past twenty years--but Teixeira and Rogers see little room for growth there. Conversely, the nonunion white working class is the true "suburban independent," constituting three-fifths of suburban voters. What's more, these voters "were far and away the most volatile segment of the electorate...the real 'swing voter'" of the nineties. They're the ones searching for a new politics because, until the past few years, their median family income was stagnating and their average real wage was declining.
Within this group, Teixeira and Rogers pay special attention to nonunion working-class white men, partly because the Democrats have more room to grow among them than with Forgotten Majority women, and partly because they have been particularly fickle at the polls over the past decade. Even more important, however, is that this particular working-class group--not protected by a union, a bachelor's degree or affirmative action--has lost much ground in wages and benefits over the past quarter-century, while often being culturally and politically lumped into the "white male" power structure with whom they share little but the color of their genitalia.
In fact, nonunion white working-class men constitute a large group that is politically open to having its existence remembered and appealed to. Teixeira and Rogers point out that this group of white men is nearly twice as numerous as the New Democrats' "soccer moms" and that "simply breaking even among these forgotten majority men would be equivalent to achieving landslides among...college-educated white women."
The Teixeira-Rogers analysis contains bad news for progressive Democrats as well--those who, like me, thought that registering and turning out more blacks, Hispanics and union households could lead to a majority. A great deal of effort has gone into this strategy, and it has by no means been in vain. Blacks, particularly in the South, and Hispanics, particularly in California, are a stronger presence in the electorate, and the difference between the union household vote at 19 percent of voters (as it was in 1994) or at 25 percent (the AFL-CIO goal this year) would have meant the difference between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt. But for the Democrats to achieve a ruling majority (the White House plus large majorities in both the House and Senate), a mobilized class-based appeal to the nonunion white working class would be necessary.
Teixeira and Rogers are somewhat less convincing in arguing against a gender-gap strategy targeted on nonunion white working-class women, who by themselves make up more than a quarter of all voters. It's hard to rule out efforts that would bring nonunion working-class white women into a broad coalition with blacks, Hispanics and union households. But how could Democrats do that without a class-based appeal that would attract Forgotten Majority men as well as Forgotten Majority women?
Affirmative action and the right to choose, both of which are usually cast in terms most appealing to college-educated women, have probably gained Democrats just about all they can among working-class women. Thus, Teixeira and Rogers argue, "the best approach to mobilizing the forgotten majority lies in universalist, transracial issues that should have substantial appeal to the Democratic base as well." These include issues like universal healthcare, starting with children; saving the Social Security guarantee without cutting benefits or increasing payroll taxes while adding a government subsidy to encourage wage workers to save (and invest); increasing the earned-income and childcare tax credits and expanding family and medical leave; and reducing school class size while increasing construction and teacher salaries. Also important are tight labor markets and strengthened worker rights, things that could make organizing a union less formidable while tending to increase wages and job security in the meantime.
This, of course, is pretty much the Gore-Lieberman program, as prefigured in Clinton's last two State of the Union speeches, though Teixeira and Rogers would do it all at a much greater magnitude. Where they disagree with Clinton-Gore-Lieberman--on affirmative action--they are wrong. But here's where Michael Zweig's broader economic-class analysis can lend a hand.
Zweig argues for a class-based politics as well and is equally compelling in pointing out the limitations of racial and gender-identity politics. But he wants to complicate and supplement identity politics, not eliminate it. Zweig is very clear that any working-class agenda that implicitly denies the continuing importance of racial and sexual injustice is doomed to fail for the most traditional of reasons: It divides the working class precisely along lines where it is most easily divisible. Though Zweig is open to the possibility of a class-based affirmative action supplementing the existing, racially based kind, he's opposed to any further relaxation of the current affirmative action regime--which has already taken a beating nationally in both jurisprudence and legislation.
Teixeira and Rogers make a huge mistake, in my opinion, when they advocate the replacement of race-based affirmative action with a class-based version. (They say nothing about gender-based affirmative action, which affects a majority of voters, but presumably it would disappear as well.) Their intention is to unify people around class interests, but the predictable impact would be exactly the opposite. Few issues in US politics play so differently at the symbolic level versus the level of actual details. There are many legitimate issues to discuss about particular programs in higher education and for specific work categories like police, fire and construction, but the issue of fairness in the details is never as simple as the widespread but false assumption that there exists some kind of sweeping government-ordered quota system based on nationally legislated group rights. President Clinton's phrase "mend it, don't end it" defended affirmative action (and thereby the continuing problem of racism and sexism) at the symbolic level while legitimizing discussion of the details. Challenging that Clintonian consensus by reopening the symbolic debate is not a winning political strategy, precisely because it forces people to choose between their race or gender interests and those of their class. If your goal is to split the Democratic base from the Forgotten Majority, this is exactly how to do it.
The larger point is one that Zweig makes particularly well. Class in America deserves special attention right now because it has been so thoroughly neglected for so long; but a class-based politics needs to be built on and around the achievements of the civil rights and women's movements, not counterposed to and made competitive with them. The whole point of "universalistic, transracial" political programs is to convince white working-class men that they can advance their interests better by adding key government assistance to all workers, not by subtracting it from blacks and women. The progress of working-class blacks and women, on the other hand, is currently stymied by the absence of a class politics that can complement (and maybe even revitalize) the fight for racial and sexual equality.
Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics. He sees labor unions playing a central role in such a movement and is particularly enthusiastic about the AFL-CIO's "organizing for change, changing to organize" strategy.
A plain-spoken economist, rigorous thinker and clear writer, Zweig defines the American class structure basically by occupations and the amount and kind of power people have in the workplace. In this schema, there are three classes: a "capitalist class," defined by ownership and control of giant profit-making enterprises; a "working class," defined by a lack of power at work and in society at large; and a "middle class" of managers, professionals and small-business owners who have a degree of autonomy and influence at work that makes them different from the working class but nowhere near as powerful as the capitalists.
If this sounds like classic Marxism (capital, labor and the petty bourgeoisie), don't let that distract you. Zweig never mentions "relations of production" or any of the other key Marxian concepts that have been transformed into mind-numbing sectarian jargon over the past half-century. The Working-Class Majority is, in fact, a refreshing restatement of the classical Marxist view, but it is updated by its delicate analysis of occupations in the United States today and by its post-cold war refusal to call for the elimination of the capitalist class. Rather, Zweig charts a politics based on the understanding that over the past two or three decades the capitalist class has again achieved the kind of overweening power, both nationally and internationally, that was once at least partially checked by strong labor movements and progressive governments. Unchecked, the capitalist class, often despite its best intentions, will systematically make life worse for workers and eventually even undermine capitalism's splendid (but ultimately unsustainable) ability to create wealth.
No one has claimed that Al Gore's campaign theme "They're for the powerful, we're for the people" was influenced by Zweig's analysis, but Gore's rhetorical emphasis on the power of "the few" is consistent with the kind of politics Zweig is after. In the end, the current Democratic policy package, though a minimalist version, moves exactly in the direction Zweig and Teixeira and Rogers want. The difference is that their complementary class analyses offer a much more expansive sense of possibility for US politics and, taken together, a wider range of options, in both thought and action, for achieving that possibility. They are also part of a larger trend in academic thought (much of it organized around the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University) struggling toward a fresh framework for consistently remembering the working-class majority.
Both books suffer from their lack of attention to the professional middle class (which includes all three of them, as well as me and most of the readers of this review), the real cultural power we have as a class and the differences between us and the working class. Teixeira and Rogers's "core working-class values," with their emphasis on "individual achievement," sound suspiciously middle class to me, and this both oversimplifies and distorts their analysis. Likewise, Zweig's principled refusal to discuss incomes grossly underestimates the power of money in a capitalist society. "Rich" and "poor" are key terms in the vernacular sense of class because everybody realizes that the size of your income makes a huge difference in the kind of life and prospects you have.
Neither of these books adequately links its social-scientific terms and statistics with the common conception of class in America. It's also a bit embarrassing to praise two books for calling attention to a "working class" they define so differently. But each, in richly textured detail, systematically destroys the debilitating vernacular notion that almost everybody (all those who are neither "rich" nor "poor") is "middle class." This notion is so spectacularly false that precise definitions don't matter. What's important to understand is that there is a college-educated professional and managerial "middle class," and we have been doing quite well for the past two decades, whether we're white, black or other; and there is a much larger "working class" (of various races, genders, incomes and occupations, union and largely nonunion) that has been struggling and, for the most part, losing ground for most of that time. The problem with lumping all of us together into a ubiquitous "middle class" is that they tend to disappear, and we tend to think that their experience, interests and values are just like ours.
The connotations of "middle class" in the US vernacular almost always include "college educated" and "comfortable standard of living." Thus, the totemic "soccer mom" is regularly envisioned as a computer support specialist married to a systems analyst (two of our fastest-growing occupations), with a minivan and a family income approaching $100,000. She's actually much more likely to be a clerical worker married to a retail salesman (two occupations growing even faster), with a family income of $42,000 and a six-year-old Chevy Cavalier. A politics that does not recognize and speak to the real soccer moms is doomed to confusion and failure. One that consistently does, on the other hand, has many more possibilities for progressive change than is dreamt of in the dominant philosophies.
However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill's collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or "Classic of Poetry" (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill's translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley's 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: "Sam Hamill's work, like Waley's, represents a lifetime's devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current."
Earlier than Waley's work, Ezra Pound's slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound's contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the "River Kiang" as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound's directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound's Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in "The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills" ("Taking Leave of Two Officials"). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his
approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. "Taking Leave of a Friend," by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer's mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer's intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached--as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, "Crossing the Yellow River," by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky--
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," Eliot's "Preludes," Philip Levine's "Milkweed" and Karl Kirchwey's "In Transit," among others.
Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book's few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China's greatest and also "one of the most influential critics of her age." "To the Tune: Boat of Stars" brings back to me Ezra Pound's remarkable adaptation of Li Po's "The River Merchant's Wife." Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I've gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter--
I'm intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament," the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader's mind. Here, for instance, is "A Smile":
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.
Hamill's revised translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi's poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi's injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill's ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes's Lu Chi's Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document's history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill's prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author--the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In "Discovering the Artist Within," he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan--two in the Marines and one on a fellowship--added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. "We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T'ang Dynasty," Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today's practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: "I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life."
Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
Looking back, the language scribbles.
What's hidden, having been said?
Almost everything? Thrilling to think
There was a secret there somewhere,
A bird singing in the heart's forest.
Two people sitting by a river;
Sunlight, shadow, some pretty trees;
Death dappling in the flowing water;
Beautiful to think about,
Romance inscrutable as music.
Out of the ground, in New Jersey, my mother's
Voice, toneless, wailing--beseeching?
Crying out nothing? A winter vapor,
Out of the urn, rising in the yellow
Air, an ashy smear on the page.
The quiet room floats on the waters,
Buoyed up gently on the daylight;
The branch I can see stirs a little;
Nothing to think about; writing
Is a way of being happy.
What's going to be in this place?
A person entering a room?
Saying something? Signaling?
Writing a formula on a blackboard.
Something not to be understood.
It is always among sleepers we walk.
We walk in their dreams. None of us
Knows what he is as he walks
In the dream of another. Tell me my name
Your tongue is blurred, honeyed with error,
Your sleep's truth murmurs its secret.
Tell me your name. Out at the edge,
Out in the cold, out in the cold
That came into the house in your clothes
The wind's hands hold onto nothing,
Moaning, over the edge of the cliff
The wind babble unintelligible.
By the last few times we saw her it was clear
That things were different. When you tried to help her
Get out of the car or get from the car to the door
Or across the apartment house hall to the elevator
There was a new sense of heaviness
Or of inertia in the body. It wasn't
That she was less willing to be helped to walk
But that the walking itself had become less willing.
Maybe the stupid demogorgon blind
Recalcitrance of body, resentful of the laws
Of mind and spirit, was getting its own back now,
Or maybe a new and subtle, alien,
Intelligence of body was obedient now
To other laws: "Weight is the measure of
The force with which a body is drawn downward
To the center of the earth"; "Inertia is
The tendency of a body to resist
Proceeding to its fate in any way
Other than that determined for itself."
That evening, at the Bromells' apartment, after
She had been carried up through the rational structure
By articulate stages, floor after flashing floor,
And after we helped her get across the hall,
And get across the room to a chair, somehow
We got her seated in a chair that was placed
A little too far away from the nearest table,
At the edge of the abyss, and there she sat,
Exposed, her body the object of our attention--
The heaviness of it, the helpless graceless leg,
The thick stocking, the leg brace, the medical shoe.
. . .
Her smiling made her look as if she had
Just then tasted something delicious, the charm
Her courtesy attributed to her friends.
This decent elegant fellow human being
Was seated in virtue, character, disability,
Behind her the order of the ranged bookshelves,
The windows monitored by Venetian blinds--
"These can be raised or lowered; numerous slats,
Horizontally arranged, and parallel,
Which can be tilted so as to admit
Precisely the desired light or air."
. . .
The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
"In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
Infinite vacuities . . . For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
Perplex the intellects of man so much,
As the disruption of this union with
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
A state he has not faculties to know."
The dinner was delicious, fresh greens, and reds,
And yellows, produce of the season due,
And fish from the nearby sea; and there were also
Ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink.
Don't be too eager to ask
What the gods have in mind for us,
What will become of you,
What will become of me,
What you can read in the cards,
Or spell out on the Ouija board.
It's better not to know.
Either Jupiter says
This coming winter is not
After all going to be
The last winter you have,
Or else Jupiter says
This winter that's coming soon,
Eating away the cliffs
Along the Tyrrhenian Sea,
Is going to be the final
Winter of all. Be mindful.
Take good care of your household.
The time we have is short.
Cut short your hopes for longer.
Now as I say these words,
Time has already fled
Hold on to the day.