I recently finished a brief course on fairy tales and one of the recurring motifs was how changing clothes signals a change in identity or perceived identity, and it was fun to see that same idea coming up as fashion historians and costume designers talk about how they approach costuming for crime films (especially villains).
This is either a remarkably critical celebration or a remarkably appreciative critique of P.G. Wodehouse.
P.G. Wodehouse and the Idea of Genius (at Front Porch Republic)
“Readers who love Wodehouse know perfectly well that he’s no moral compass, towering intellect, or incisive commentator on his times. His genius resides in one simple fact: he had a wondrous way with a sentence. He subdued English grammar like a lion tamer, working himself into seemingly fatal complications before extricating himself with a flourish. He could turn a proverb inside out, cap an epic simile with a preposterous slangy coda, extend a metaphor to the breaking point and fold it neatly for another day—all while displaying a matchless ear for prose rhythm. Brief quotations don’t capture the full effect of Wodehouse’s style. One of his greatest set pieces, for example, involves a jealous young man trashing a London nightclub and runs on for several pages. A few shorter samples will at least hint at the Wodehouse experience.
Here is Bertie reminiscing in The Code of the Woosters:
The whole situation recalled irresistibly to my mind something that had happened to me once up at Oxford, when the heart was young. It was during Eights Week, and I was sauntering on the river-bank with a girl named something that has slipped my mind, when there was a sound of barking and a large, hefty dog came galloping up, full of beans and buck and obviously intent on mayhem. And I was just commending my soul to God, and feeling that this was where the old flannel trousers got about thirty bob’s worth of value bitten out of them, when the girl, waiting till she saw the whites of its eyes, with extraordinary presence of mind suddenly opened a colored Japanese umbrella in the animal’s face. Upon which, it did three back somersaults and retired into private life.”
Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead
One of the ongoing debates that picks up steam every now and then is whether we should have high school students read old books in school (this WSJ opinion piece was everywhere recently and the #DisruptTexts tag on Twitter is on fire). Of course, a lot of the impetus behind this is to replace the canon of old dead white guys with a more diverse set of authors and subjects, but I can’t help but think another reason is because adults don’t really read old books anymore either. I mean, do adults even read anymore?
Alan Jacobs thinks we should, and thinks we should also read old books. “Breaking bread with the dead” is provocative phrasing that sounds much weirder than it actually is. Breaking bread is a common term, maybe especially in Christian circles (though this is not an explicitly Christian book) for sharing table fellowship – for sharing a meal and conversation with someone. Jacobs suggests we should see reading old books as an opportunity to join their authors for table fellowship.
Why would we do this? Jacobs actually has a fairly compelling argument, more convincing, probably, than my usual “because it’s good for you and also fun!!” reasoning. Taking an idea from Thomas Pynchon, he argues that expanding our temporal bandwidth increases our personal density – in other words, increasing our understanding of humanity over time (temporal bandwidth) increases our own weightiness, our own ability to stand up to every breeze that blows in our accelerated and windblown culture. For the Christians in the room, this of course brings to mind Ephesians 4:
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the headâ€”Christâ€” 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.Ephesians 4:11-16, NKJV
Paul is speaking specifically of staying grounded in the Word of God to avoid heresy, but I do believe that the idea is broadly applicable to life in general. It’s very easy, especially on social media, to get swept up with whatever the topic of outrage du jour is, and sometimes outrage is justified, but how quickly do we get swept on to the next one at a moment’s notice. And how often are we so buried in our own bubbles that we can barely see outside them, much less understand how different viewpoints have shifted throughout history rather than just since last week. Jacobs argues that it is precisely encounters with difference that give us more perspective and more focus for the present.
Jacobs takes up several objections – notably how to deal with the fact that we honestly and in many cases appropriately have major issues with viewpoints common to the past. Like racism and sexism to name two huge ones. His response won’t be enough, likely, for the #DisruptText crowds, but as an already-committed old book apologist, I found it quite useful – don’t discount our objections, but also don’t use those objections to dismiss an entire book/author. They’re complex human beings, just like we are, and because we rightfully denounce their racism doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them in some other way.
Besides increasing our personal density, Jacobs also recommends approaching this table fellowship thinking of the old writers as our neighbors. We don’t always agree with our neighbors. Sometimes we may vehemently disagree with them. Jacobs suggests that learning to engage strange and even sometimes repugnant ideas in books, where we have control over the encounter, is a relatively safe and stress-free way to “practice” engaging our actual real-life neighbors. Ultimately, he hopes we can treat our ancestors as well as our contemporaries and descendents with a spirit of generosity and love – a genealogy of love continuing throughout the generations.
One pushback I can make on the book is he doesn’t really address the value of reading cross-culturally among modern writers rather than reading cross-temporally. This question was actually asked of him during a podcast I listened to, and his response was basically that yes, reading cross-culturally is a great idea and definitely contributes to our personal density, but that reading old books still probably does it more just because our modern world is so globally oriented that even though there are plenty of cultural differences, they aren’t actually as great as the difference between modern culture and, say, Ancient Greek culture, or even Medieval European culture. I would’ve liked to have seen that idea explored in more detail in the actual book. Especially since we inherit our current dominant white culture from these cultures – maybe they’re more different than they are similar, but I can easily see a #DisruptTexts advocate finding this a hard proposition to swallow. Maybe a sequel!
As someone who doesn’t need to be convinced to read old books, I appreciated metaphors like the one I quoted at the top, which took my thinking slightly off his topic, but still relevant to reading widely. The idea of good books and culture in general being a feast echoes Charlotte Mason’s philosophy about spreading a feast for students in terms of offering them lots of great literature, music and art, letting them play in nature, etc. Not everyone will like everything, but everyone’s invited to the feast to browse and enjoy. If we can see and present old books like this, as a feast to enjoy rather than an assignment to dread or a checklist to complete, perhaps breaking bread with the dead would be more enticing for more people.
Like many books about reading, I do suspect this one will largely end up preaching to the choir. Most people who aren’t interested in reading at all, or reading old books in particular, are unlikely to pick this up. Those of us who are interested are likely nodding along in agreement all the way through, not needing to be convinced of his thesis. But I think his arguments on every point give those of us who think the value of reading old books should be self-evident do give us some good arguments for the challengers we run into ourselves, and for that I am very grateful.
Book 2 of 2021 for me. I won’t review everything, and not necessarily in order.
1900-1908: Imitators and Innovation
Moving into the 20th century saw a lot of filmmakers try to imitate MÃ©liÃ¨s’ camera trickery, and soon begin outpacing him. Unfortunately, as innovative as MÃ©liÃ¨s was in creating the trick film, he never really went past that, never able to break free from his conception of the cinema as filmed stage action, and never realizing the capabilities of the camera beyond stopping and starting time. There are many great MÃ©liÃ¨s films in the first half of this decade, but it’s not long before they begin to feel tiresome. In this section, we’ll see trick films continue to be central, but other types of narratives and editing techniques will also start to be developed. I cut the date off at 1908 instead of 1909 because 1909 is when D.W. Griffith really started taking off, and marks the shift from trick film to more complex narratives. We’ll catch up 1909 to 1912 in the next post, and then I’ll try to go year by year after that.
Going to Bed Under Difficulties
One of my favorite MÃ©liÃ¨s subgenres is the haunted inn, where a weary traveler tries to get to bed but he can’t seem to make it – chairs move, the bed disappears, his clothes walk off on their own. In this case, the furniture stays put, but he can’t seem to manage to keep his clothes off. There are many of these, and they’re one of the few types of MÃ©liÃ¨s films that never got old for me even when I was tiring of him. I also just really love the English title of this.
The Delights of Automobiling
After a near-decade of cinema domination from the US and France, Great Britain jumped on the scene with some decidedly delightful (and macabre) films from Cecil M. Hepworth, including this one which features a motorcar exploding…and look out for what’s falling from the sky. Great example of wry British black humor.
Grandma’s Reading Glass
When the Brits made their way into cinema, they did it in a big way. George Albert Smith contributed this film, said to contain the first closeups. The conceit is that a boy is looking through his grandma’s magnifying glass, then we cut to see what the magnifying glass sees – in closeup. A bird in a cage, Grandma’s eye, etc. Because of the cut to closeup, it’s also one of the earliest films that contains editing! Things like this are why this Chrono Watch has been so rewarding. You don’t notice things like this being so innovative if you see them out of context.
The Enchanted Drawing
J. Stuart Blackton was something like the American version of MÃ©liÃ¨s, experimenting with trick films and also animation before most people. An illustrator draws a large man’s face and some wine, and the illustrated face changes in reaction to the illustrator’s actions. A lot of very early animation foregrounded the illustrator like this, as in many of cartoonist Windsor McKay’s early shorts.