Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Aesthetic autism

Straussian or Douthatian? You be the judge.
Shorter Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, "A Requiem for 'Girls'":
I knew it all along, that show was conservative.
Really, going back to the origins in 2012:

I.e., if Douthat (the addressee of the tweet) is a Straussian? Or if the Douthat observer is a Straussian? Or in the sense in which Tyler Cowen in particular is a forensic Straussian dedicated to sussing out Straussianism where it occurs, as when he demonstrates that Star Wars or Taylor Swift is particularly Straussian (but not Douthatian)? Or if the Girls watcher trying to decide whether the show is Douthatian or not is a Straussian—the Straussian Girls audience finds that it is a Douthatian episode, whereas the libertarians, Burkeans, Oakeshottians, neoconservatives, and left-deviationist Buchananites following the show may feel it reflects the views of Charles Krauthammer or Erick W. Erickson or some other author of columns? The possibilities, dizzying though they are, did not tempt Douthat to any self-examination, but yes, he was anxious to stake the claim that the show was conservative, and that's why he liked it:

By “Douthatian” I’m assuming that he meant implicitly socially conservative, and now that I’ve caught up with the show, I think if anything its critique of contemporary (New York, upper middle class, white) sexual mores is explicit rather than esoteric.
Oh, if Lena Dunham is a Straussian, obviously, a disciple of Dr. Leo Strauss, creating a work with a dual message, an exoteric one for the vulgar masses to swallow and an esoteric one for the initiates, then her esoteric message is Douthatian, as in condoms will fail to make people happy and therefore should be discouraged. To which Douthat's reply is that no, she's not a secret Douthatian concealing her social conservatism behind a screen of apparent naughtiness, but an open Douthatian saying it straight out: if you think the easy availability of condoms will make a bunch of well-off young white women in Brooklyn happy, you are wrong. It is
a fairly dystopian take on twentysomething social life, in which the comedy is dark, the sex is gross, the romance is disappointing, and the mix of nudity, jadedness and bawdy talk doesn’t carry any of the aspirational frisson that was always associated with the post-sexual revolution single life on a show like “Sex and the City.”
Though even Carrie and her friends didn't slide into happiness in the second episode of the first season. There is a question of maintaining some kind of narrative suspense.
I’m not suggesting that Dunham is secretly channeling the show’s profits to the Family Research Council. But it’s still interesting to watch how effectively “Girls” weaves together elements from various recent critiques of modern sexual arrangements. 
By 2014 he had a theory that Girls was conservative in spite of Dunham's political views because of her greatness as an artist, which made her committed to telling the truth in spite of herself:
Nobody doubts that David Simon is a card-carrying left-winger, for instance, or that Lena Dunham’s politics are pink right down to the underwear she so reliably doffs. But both “The Wire” and “Girls” admit of conservative, even deeply reactionary readings, because their primary loyalty—at least in their best episodes and seasons—is to truthful portraits of a given world. And while I think there would be more such portraits, more such truthfulness, if Hollywood were less ideologically monolithic, I wouldn’t want to deny that sometimes they show up, especially when the work in question is particularly well-executed, particularly rich.
Or, a few months later,
The thing that makes Dunham’s show so interesting, the reason it inspired a certain unsettlement among some of its early fans, is that it often portrays young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it: as a collision of narcissists educated mostly in self-love, a sexual landscape distinguished by serial humiliations — a realm at once manic and medicated, privileged and bereft of higher purpose.
Now, he's back to say goodbye:

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.
Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.
Except, fact-check: that's three contributions, and this is a fourth. Awl does include the October 2014 column (probably an update from today, since today's column is there too). Ross Douthat personally accounts for some 10% of the Times-Dunham romance. That's the main thing I care about, myself, that a TV show should be so profoundly important to him (he's written around as many columns on the subject as, say, Benghazi, or the problem of the payroll tax), and what's typically conservative about that.

Which is that weird need, also so prominent in the thinking of Jonah Goldberg, to reduce every fictional narrative into a political message like that of a Stalin-era tractor romance or an Ayn Rand novel (both sides!), in a kind of aesthetic autism, or, if it's complex enough to be worth reading, as two or more messages, in conflict with each other:

...successful art has a way of slipping its ideological leash, and the striking thing about “Girls” is how the mess it portrayed made a mockery of the official narrative of social liberalism, in which prophylactics and graduate degrees and gender equality are supposed to lead smoothly to health, wealth and high-functioning relationships.
Obviously I didn't get the memo when the Zhdanovite branch of Social Liberalism laid the official narrative down, so I haven't actually heard about this, but what he seems to be talking about it something like the Romantic reading of Milton's Paradise Lost (William Blake accusing Milton of being "of the Devil's party without knowing it").

But the more normal case is the normal human being's response to Anna Karenina, which is clearly designed as a socially conservative tract warning young women of the dangers of adultery, but in which Tolstoy himself is clearly in love with his bewitching and doomed heroine and incapable of judging her, even as he condemns her to death. You don't summarize the book when you're done with "adultery is a terrible and despicable thing", or with "adultery is pretty great stuff" either. That's really not what it's about (even if there's some evidence that Tolstoy thought it was, at the outset). What it's at the most primitive level about is the subject announced in the first sentence, how unhappy families are all different, the unstated corollary being that a good story is usually about an unhappy family. Which is probably what kept Douthat watching, that though he can't bear to acknowledge it, even to himself—the depiction of social reality, which is that problems are pervasive regardless of your political affiliation (I'm a liberal because I think certain problems, like poverty or institutional discrimination, are stupid and avoidable).

I literally haven't seen any of Girls myself, to tell the truth (I've read some about it, like everybody else, and my daughter filled me in on the first couple of seasons), but I think if it's really that good it's through the recognition that everybody's unhappiness is unique, and can't be submitted to a cookie-cutter judgment. Of course maybe that's the real official social-liberal narrative, I can't be sure.

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